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Gators DT Desmond Watson Ready for Challenging First Start at Tennessee

Gators nose tackle Desmond Watson's emergence on the inside of the defensive line leads to a challenging first start for him against Tennessee.

Photo: Desmond Watson; Credit: Alex Shepherd

The Florida Gators' defensive line group came into the season as a glaring concern without the presence of legitimate talent or depth on the interior — specifically at nose tackle.

However, the sought-after emergence from one of the big men in the middle is coming in the form of sophomore Desmond Watson. He's compiled five tackles and one TFL this year while more notably creating a considerable push despite commanding double teams.

As a result, he's earned a coveted starting position in Florida's defense for their week four matchup against Tennessee.

The journey to Watson's first start has been a complex process. However, after losing weight as a freshman, putting it back on over the offseason then losing it again in the first quarter of the season to drop from 439 to 415 pounds and carve out a starting role, the road to playing time is a fulfilling one for the Gators' monstrous nose tackle.

"I wouldn't say too much, but there's been times when I know I had to have a conversation with myself and really buckle down," he said when asked if the process ever felt overwhelming. "I'm not running out of time, I still feel like I'm early in my college career, but for my liking, I want to get on the field more, so I had to buckle down and get right and be on the field like I want to be."

His decision to buckle down has played a vital role in his added playing time this season.

Operating in the aforementioned thin interior defensive line unit, Watson began the season in rotation with the previous starter Jalen Lee.

Performing well in the opportunities he's received, the Plant City (Fla.) native has proven to be a natural gap stuffer at 6-foot-5, 415 pounds who can muscle offensive linemen or ball carriers around (as seen below), move nimbly despite his size and play smart football that aids the unit significantly.

Consequently, his time increased exponentially over the first three weeks of the year. Now, he gets the nod as a starter.

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"It's really exciting something I looked forward to coming up as a kid, exciting to get my first start away, in a hostile environment. I feel like that's going to be a test for me, but I feel like I'm ready for it."

That hostile environment will not only be a test for Watson, but the scheme of the opposing offense raises questions regarding his ability to maintain his stamina.

With Tennessee operating a fast-paced attack that attempts to run a play every 18 seconds and do so every 20.5 seconds on average so far this season, Watson will have an added physical toll placed on him before, during and after the play with little opportunity for rotation once he hits the field for that drive.

To this point in the year, Watson feels he is managing his wind better than when he was pushing 440 pounds. 

Heading into the season, All Gators estimated that Watson's snap count would hover around 25-30 snaps per contest due to the fatigue that would ultimately set in. However, he played a career-high 38 snaps in week three against USF with no decline in his play as the game went on.

He will have to continue that to be an asset rather than a liability against Josh Heupel's Volunteers' offense on Saturday as he sprints to his spot after the whistle. He is ready for that challenge.

"I can say in the past, during the game, I get some plays in and I'm looking at the sideline wondering when he's going to sub me out, but I feel like now I've learned to manage it a little better," he said. "I mean, now I'm actually in the game, and I don't want to come out a lot, so I notice a difference in my conditioning. My performances have been better. I definitely see how I'm doing better, so I can definitely move better and stuff like that."

Watson and some of his defensive teammates are taking the initiative to ensure that continues with Tennessee-focused drills this week.

"After practice, me and a couple of outside linebackers and some of the defensive linemen do some extra drills or during periods when we're not doing much, get some extra sprints in. I feel like [co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney] has a plan for me to stay in the game and execute as well as I can."

If he can, Watson can be an uber-disruptive piece to the puzzle for Sean Spencer's defensive line unit and the Florida program under Billy Napier moving forward. He gets his first major chance to showcase his worth on Saturday.

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