Jaylen Watkins had an inconsistent sophomore campaign. (See: tape, Georgia). But this off-season, the rangy cornerback set out to make sure his junior season is much more even-keeled occasion.
So far this spring, he's on the right track.
"I feel like I'm starting to separate myself as far as being physical and trying to create turnovers," Watkins said. "Those are my two biggest things that I didn't do last year. At times, I wasn't physical, and at times I was right there and didn't make the play. That's all I focus on now, and it's starting to turn out good for me." To teammates and coaches, the six-foot, 190 pound junior has made strides in turning the corner.
Despite an uneven 2011 and a deep and crowded secondary, Watkins has positioned himself for increased playing time and a potential starting role in 2012. Motivated by the coaches' assertion that he should become the physical player he's sometimes shown, Watkins focused on the weight room and lots of film study.
The corner aims to be the defensive playmaker the Gators lacked a season ago, and in the two open practices the media witnessed last week, he was.
Watkins intercepted all three prospective quarterbacks on Friday and Saturday, seizing the reigns as the team's most improved player.
Turnovers have been a major emphasis for the defense this spring, and Watkins has taken the issue to heart as much as anyone.
Watkins' three picks earned him T-shirts as part of a rewards program -- prizes are given for interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries -- head coach Will Muschamp and coordinator Dan Quinn created as a ploy to spark more turnovers.
According to Watkins, the extra motivation is working and has added a spirited atmosphere in the secondary's battle for playing time.
"It's real competitive," he said. "But I like it like that because every day you've got to come out and bring you're A-game."
Wide receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. said that's exactly what Watkins has done every workout, calling him the "hardest defensive back to go against in practice."
"He's the best all-around DB from the standpoint of covering to press coverages," Hammond Jr. said.
The senior wideout said Watkins has made "a pretty good jump," and has a much better understanding of route concepts and positioning. Andre Debose seconded Hammond Jr.'s statement, singling out Watkins' early spring performance too. And safety Josh Evans said he has the potential to be the next great Gators shutdown corner.
But despite the profusion of early praise, Watkins admitted his game -- specifically his technique -- still needs plenty of work. The low-point of his career was the loss against the Bulldogs, but after and offseason of study and strength, spring football has been a lot more fun for him.
"Instead of thinking I'm just reacting now," he said happily.