It was a key moment in a tight game at South Carolina.
The Gamecocks were trailing 17-6 early in the fourth quarter and were inches from Kentucky’s end zone. It was fourth down and they looked ready to seize the momentum.
At that moment when momentum and maybe even the game was on the line, UK inside linebacker Eli Brown felt a terrible pain.
“This is not the right time to be cramping,” Brown said he remembered thinking, knowing full well the circumstances, that he was already the backup, subbing the entire game for star Jordan Jones, who was out with a shoulder injury.
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Brown knew that his own backup, redshirt freshman Jamar “Boogie” Watson, had played only a small number of snaps at practice at that spot.
The enormity of the situation wasn’t lost on Watson, who had never recorded a tackle in a game.
Watson felt the stadium shaking and the crowd growling while on the Cats’ sideline all game, but when he went in, everything went quiet.
At least to the redshirt freshman from Forestville, Md.
“When I was in there, it fell silent,” he remembered. “I didn’t hear any fans.”
But he saw the ball and the ball carrier, Rico Dowdle, coming his way.
In a split second, cornerback Derrick Baity got his arms wrapped around Dowdle’s churning legs and Watson jumped between the running back and the goal line.
Together they made what turned out to be a key stop.
“Boogie just made a great play,” Baity said. “He just read it, saw it and came and helped.”
Back in the locker room, Brown was begging trainers to pump the intravenous fluids into him at a Niagara Falls pace.
He worried about what was happening outside. Then someone ran in with the good news.
“I got hyped,” said Brown, who had six tackles in the win and will be called upon to play major minutes against No. 20 Florida on Saturday at Kroger Field with Jones sidelined again. “They came back and told me Boogie got half of the tackle.”
Others may be amazed that Watson made the play, but not Baity.
“It really don’t surprise me,” Baity said. “Boogie’s a smart player. His football IQ is really high. They feel comfortable throwing him in at any position and he responds how he’s supposed to respond and he makes plays.”
There’s another part of the story that people don’t quite get, Brown said of his fellow linebacker.
In Watson’s year and a half at Kentucky, he’s had to learn four different linebacker spots: Jack, Sam, Mike and now Will.
On the depth chart released Monday morning, Watson was penciled in at middle linebacker (mike) behind Courtney Love and Kash Daniel. By Monday afternoon when it was clear that Jones was going to be out for at least one game, coaches slid him over to weakside behind Brown. It was a position he had practiced at sparingly.
“That man, I don’t know how he did it, man,” Brown said of Watson. “He learned the defense so quick. Boogie is a special player.”
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Watson was recruited out of Bishop McNamara High School at outside linebacker. He practiced all summer like he was an outside linebacker, and then a situational inside linebacker (jack).
Coaches approached him about moving to middle linebacker to add some depth at that spot in August. Then there was the unexpected shift to weakside.
“I just do what they say, follow their lead,” Watson said of his defensive coaches. “This is their world. I just do what they say.”
While all of them technically are linebacker positions, they each have different, specific nuances.
Different footwork, different cover responsibilities, different reads.
All of that moving around and not playing right away might have made other players decide to go elsewhere, but not Watson.
“If it was me, I’d be ready to leave,” Brown said. “You’re going to different positions. It shows the fight that he has and I appreciate that about Boogie a lot.”
Just study the way that outside linebackers like Denzil Ware and Josh Allen line up, look at their feet (one foot forward, one foot back) and then look at the inside guys, Brown explained.
At his weakside linebacker spot, the feet are squared, the steps are stuttered and short.
“They’re all really different in their own way,” Watson said.
It is hard to understand just how difficult it is until you try to bounce from one spot to the next, Brown said.
“Sometimes you still see the outside linebacker in him, but Boogie is catching on quick,” Brown said. “I’m proud of that. … He’s showing he cares about this team, and I love that about him.”
The redshirt freshman earned his coaches’ trust.
“We think he’ll be a good football player both inside and outside,” Stoops said early this season. “But that’s sometimes easier said than done.”
Watson’s quick learning curve is especially impressive when you consider that he only started playing football his junior season of high school. He was a star basketball player, too.
Watson is an athletic guy who can move, which helps at any spot, defensive coordinator Matt House said.
“Boogie is a smart guy,” House said of the moving and switching this season. “It’s hard and takes reps. He’s definitely grown and improved in there. He’s a really intelligent football player and a loose football player.”
No. 20 Florida at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)