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Justin Watkins has opportunity with Gators
Justin Watkins is coming home.
After a long and difficult recruiting process, the 4-star wide receiver committed to the Gators during his official visit last month. Watkins, who was born and raised in Alachua County, now has a school — and a decision — that he can stick with.
The Ocala, Fla., native went through several changes during his high school career, attending three different schools and making prior pledges to LSU, Florida State and Texas.
Watkins transferred to East Ridge High School (Clermont, Fla.) for his senior season and excelled under first-year coach Jason Robinson, who led the Knights to a 7-4 record in 2017. Watkins finished the year with 1,167 combined yards (615 rushing, 515 passing) and 14 total touchdowns.
“He had a lot on his plate this year,” Robinson said of Watkins. “Coming into a new school, dealing with the recruiting process and the pressures of that. Then obviously the pressure to perform at a high level. I don’t envy the pressure he was feeling and I know at times it was really weighing on him.
“But things worked out in the end. For him to choose Florida and be able to stay close to home, he was happy to get it done. He’s looking forward to Signing Day, moving on to the next step and kind of putting all this behind him. I know he is relieved.”
The previous Florida staff pursued the top-100 overall prospect throughout his recruitment, but nothing ever materialized. However, the Gators re-entered the mix during the week of the Under Armour All-American Game after Watkins postponed his scheduled announcement between Alabama and LSU.
“During that week he met some of their commits and that’s kind of what set the whole thing in motion, to be honest with you,” Robinson said. “I think there were five kids there and all of them had already signed. He got to know them and he created a relationship with quarterback Emory Jones.
“Honestly, it just really started to feed from the players and he got comfortable with them. They were trying to get him to come there and kind of reopened his eyes about that opportunity. Coming out of that week, the dead period ended and things heated up pretty quickly as soon as they could hit the ground.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen came to see Watkins on the first day of the January contact period (Jan. 12). Mullen stopped at his school first and then conducted an in-home visit. Mullen made a strong first impression on Watkins and the Clermont faculty.
“Coach Mullen came in to the school and he was great,” Robinson said. “We have a lot of Florida fans in our building and he walked in and played it perfectly. He shook everybody’s hand and signed everything they gave him. He was like the people’s champ. He did a great job of not big-leaguing anybody and just being humble and down to earth. I think that meant a lot to the people in our building. We have people at the school who have been rooting for Justin to go to Florida from the get-go, so I know there was excitement when that became a possibility.”
Watkins took his official visit to Florida the following week and pulled the trigger while in Gainesville. He is ranked the nation’s No. 16 wide receiver and No. 89 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite.
However, Mullen and his staff recruited the 6-foot, 173-pound Watkins as an athlete and he could potentially line up at several spots in college.
“Any time you have a kid where you can put up four or five positions on the board and he can slide into the starting group of any one of those positions, that’s a huge asset,” Robinson said of Watkins. “This season he started for us at corner, receiver and running back. He took direct snaps and threw a few passes. He can return kicks, too.
“He’s going to make an impact right away. His versatility and ability to do multiple things will be what excites the Florida coaches and fans the most. I don’t think they’ve settled on exactly where he’s going to play yet. I think that will be determined at a later date.”
Robinson believes Florida’s offense needs more weapons like Watkins, but also recognizes that his future could be on the defensive side of the ball. Robinson added that Watkins wants to see the field as soon as possible and doesn’t have a preference on where he plays.
“It would be hard for me to not look at him with the ball in his hands because I’ve seen what he can do,” Robinson said. “But at the same time, as you look at his projectability, I really think he has a chance to be an NFL defensive back. He’s got the length, the speed, the ball skills. Any time you have a kid who can cover and hit the way he can, you don’t find too many kids who are athletic and physical like he is. It’s a rare mix.
“So I know pretty much all cards are on the table from what they’ve said, what we’ve said to them and what Justin is willing to do. Coach [Billy] Gonzales is one of the best wide receiver coaches in the country and I know the defensive coaches are licking their chops hoping he plays DB. Whoever gets him in their room, they’re getting a great kid and a great football player. And I know they’re going to take care of him.”
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