The coaches at Saddleback College were incredulous when Menelik Watson told them he had never played football. Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing more than 300 pounds, Watson passed the eyeball test. But when he was asked to get into an offensive lineman's position, it became apparent he was telling the truth.
That was in August 2011, when Watson showed up on the campus of the junior college in Mission Viejo, Calif., knowing nothing about a three-point stance or how to put on a pair of shoulder pads, for that matter. In the 19 months since then, Watson started only 20 games, including 12 at right tackle for Florida State last season, but he scaled the learning curve so shockingly fast that he generally is considered a late-first round or early-second round prospect in the NFL draft later this month.
"It's mind-boggling to me how much upside this kid has," said Mike Mayock, a draft analyst for the NFL Network, who said he'll be surprised if Watson isn't selected in the first round. "Every line coach in the NFL, I believe, either is or should be salivating at the opportunity to work with this kid."
As a football player, Watson certainly has taken the road less traveled. If his story were turned into a movie, it would be a hybrid of "Coming to America" and "The Blind Side."
Born in Manchester, England, a blue-collar city in the U.K. that is home to a pair of Premier Football League clubs and was the place where scientists first split the atom, Watson grew up playing football (soccer, to us Yanks) until he fractured his ankle. After that, he took up basketball and eventually a coach named Rob Orellana recruited Watson for his academy team in Spain. That led to a basketball scholarship offer from Marist University in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Watson redshirted his first season (2009-10) at Marist, and had only limited success the next season. By then, he had decided he did not want to return to Marist for another year. He also had a new interest, football, after watching Marist's team.
He thought he had the skills to play football. He wanted to try something different, or go back to England.
Going home didn't seem appealing. One of five children raised primarily by a single mom, Novlyn McFarquhar, Watson remembered how his family had struggled. One day, while his mom was cleaning a building, Watson was so hungry that he went into a cafeteria and consumed a large quantity of ketchup, the only thing he could find. As you might imagine, that ended his preference for the red saucy condiment.
Watson also was wary of the possible hurdles he might encounter if he went back.
"It was rough," Watson said. "Manchester is a great city, don't get me wrong, but it's a working man's town. There are negative opportunities and there are positive opportunities. There are a lot of gangs and violence and all kinds of stuff. But you get that everywhere, don't you?"
For a time, Watson went to live with Orellana and his family in California. That's when Orellana contacted Saddleback coach Mark McElroy and asked him if Watson could join the team.
During his 14 years at Saddleback, McElroy has coached some players with unusual backgrounds: ones who had served time in prison, ones who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, even a 38-year-old recovering alcoholic, now a motivational speaker, who wanted to return to the sport he had given up in high school. But he never had coached a football novice like Watson.
"We had to teach him from the beginning, so he didn't really have any bad habits we had to break," McElroy said. "It was like a clean slate. He was athletic, had big hips, big quads. Just a good-looking potential football player."
McElroy asked Damien Watters, then Saddleback's offensive line coach, to have Watson ready to play by the fifth game of the season. Watson was inserted in the third game, and then started the next week at right tackle. After that, he didn't come out of the lineup.
Watters, who now sells BMWs and is an assistant football coach at El Camino Junior College in Torrance, Calif., said Watson was like "a big sponge and soaked up everything that came out of my mouth." Watters, who spent extra hours with Watson after practice on the field and in the film room, was impressed by Watson's hunger for football knowledge and ability to absorb things quickly.
Watters' son played at Saddleback, and sometimes he would bring Watson home on weekends. Watson became close to Watters' wife, Angie, who Watson considered a second mother. Before Saddleback's final home game in 2011, a special goodbye ceremony was held for the sophomore players, who walked on to the field escorted by their parents. Since Watson's mom was a continent away, he asked Angie Watters to walk him out. "Mama, I'm here," Watson said when he ran up to her just before the ceremony.
"Menelik was an angel sent from heaven," Damien Watters said.
By the time his season at Saddleback ended, Watson was being coveted by several Division I colleges. Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett came out to Mission Viejo to scout Kyle Long, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long and the brother of Rams defensive end Chris Long, who at that time was the Gauchos' left tackle. While he was there, Trickett watched game tape of Watson -- and fell in love with him.
"The size kind of got me stirred up a little bit," Trickett said. "The thing that stood out to me is every week he got better and better and better. His ability just jumped off the film at you. Being 5-8 and 165 pounds, I'm kind of cocky myself. I'm thinking, If I can't coach this guy, I don't need to be in the business."
Trickett convinced Watson to come back across the country to Tallahassee, Fla., in mid-June of 2012. That gave him about two and a half months to get Watson ready to play in the Seminoles' Sept. 1 season opener against Murray State.
"The thing that was so shocking was we've got 24 pass protections ... and he learned everything," Trickett said.
Watson started at right tackle in every contest for the Seminoles in 2012 except for an Oct. 6 game at North Carolina State, when he had a 105 degree fever and was dehydrated. He allowed only one sack for the entire season. To help Watson's development, Trickett showed tape of NFL tackles past and present, including former Bengals left tackle Willie Anderson, whom Trickett coached at Auburn.
While watching the different linemen's fundamentals and technique, Watson tried to "take a piece of everybody" to help improve his game. But he said the player he studied most was Anderson, who has become something of a mentor to him. "We talk a lot," Watson said.
So what does a British athlete who played soccer and basketball (and also dabbled in boxing briefly) like about American football?
"Just the nature of it, just competing," Watson said. "The one-on-one aspect of doing your job. That's what I like the most. The aggressiveness of the sport, too. I love the physical nature of it. There's nothing like manhandling somebody, outwitting somebody."
Most coaches and scouts believe Watson would have been well-served to play one more year at Florida State to polish up his game. But he is 24 years old, and he and his girlfriend back in England have a young daughter to care for.
Although Watson played right tackle at both Saddleback and Florida State, Mayock said, "He is an absolute natural left tackle from a physical skill set." While Watson has a lot of talent, he is a long way from being a finished product.
"Here's what I know," Mayock said. "He's 6-5, 310 with long arms. He's got great feet. He's a natural pass protector. He's raw as can be, but the rawness shouldn't scare teams away. I don't think he's that far away from being able to step in and play left tackle in the NFL.
"The things he does wrong -- he gets bulled a little bit by the defensive end because he sets too high. Or he might overset and not see a particular stunt. But that's all about coaching and reps. And this kid has had no reps.
"When I see him run 20 yards downfield on tape against the University of Florida and bury a corner on a toss sweep, I just go,
Since the NFL Combine in February, where, he said, he interviewed with 26 of the league's 32 teams, Watson has been working out at Florida State twice daily (conditioning in the morning, weightlifting in the afternoon). He definitely has piqued the interest of several teams. One morning last week, the Browns worked Watson out privately in Tallahassee before he boarded a plane later that day and flew to Baltimore for a visit with the Ravens.
Given his inexperience, does Watson think of himself as a player who still is raw?
"I wouldn't consider [myself] that," he said, speaking in his thick British accent. "I'd definitely say I'm still learning. I don't think you ever stop learning. I'm learning new things every day, as everyone does in the game."
Watson no longer is the fledgling football player he was 19 months ago. He now knows what a three-point stance is -- and what to do after he gets into it.