At the end of March, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman was so frustrated with his healthy running backs that he staged “open tryouts” in practice in an attempt to add depth at the position.
The play improved before spring practice ended with the Orange-White game, but Herman was nonetheless able to land a big addition to the position on Sunday when Cal Golden Bears graduate transfer Tre Watson picked the Longhorns over the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
After Texas added fellow graduate transfer left tackle Calvin Anderson from Rice in early March, landing Watson filled the last major remaining need for the Horns heading into the 2018 season. And provided further evidence of Herman’s ability to effectively manage the roster in ways that eluded his predecessors in recent years.
So how did Watson end up in burnt orange and white? The 5’10, 190-pounder looked poised to build on a successful junior season when he tore his ACL against Weber State last September. The injury ended up extending Watson’s career and allowed him to pursue other opportunities.
If he’s not back at full health right now, Watson is certainly getting close after rehabbing from his ligament tear:
@tre1watson 2.0 ALL THE MOTIVATION YOU NEED after entering the 2017 season @tre1watson was a top 15 RB in college football heading into his Sr year and tore his ACL game 1 ! After full reconstructive ACL surgery and a full 10 month rehabilitation program At The facility pic.twitter.com/M89iaMN6JJ— WinnerCircleAthletics (@WCA_Training) May 6, 2018
Clearly, Watson has recovered the quickness that made him a successful running back at Cal, while maintaining two of his other significant traits — his ability to catch passes out of the backfield and to serve as a credible threat on kickoff returns.
While there aren’t any verified testing numbers for Watson, his Cal athletics profile does list a 4.4 40-yard dash time from high school. On the field and in the training video, Watson has extremely quick feet that allow him to bounce runs outside, one of his preferred tactics.
Those skills helped Watson gain 709 yards as a junior on 143 carries — good for 5.6 yards per carry. Toneil Carter led the Longhorns in that category last season with 4.75 yards per carry on only 53 attempts, so Watson is a much more proven talent than any of the running backs currently on the roster.
Watson isn’t the biggest or strongest running back, but he does know how to get behind his pads and gets his legs driving after contact to pick up extra yardage. In terms of tackle-breaking ability, he’s more slippery than he is powerful at around 190 pounds.
During the middle of his junior season, he flashed his upside in games against Oregon and Oregon State. Against the Ducks, he had 16 carries for 134 yards and two touchdowns before gaining 154 yards on 28 carries against the Beavers.
In terms of explosiveness, he had three runs of 32 yards at Cal, but otherwise hasn’t ripped off a lot of long runs — he’s more likely to pick up yardage in chunks of 10-15 yards.
As important as any of his other skills is the fact that he only fumbled once in his last 249 carries. Overall, he’s a player who will provide a higher level of experience and reliability than Carter or fellow sophomore Daniel Young.
Under the tutelage of running backs coach Stan Drayton, who is considered one of the best coaches at his position in college football, it’s possible that Watson could even show some improvement this fall as a runner.
If the offense once again struggles to run the ball between the tackles, Watson is known for his reliable hands as a pass catcher. He’s also capable of lining up in the slot and profiles as the best overall receiving threat among the Texas running backs in the 2018 season.
As a junior, Watson averaged 11.48 yards per reception, gaining 241 yards on 21 catches while scoring four touchdowns in the process.
With 657 kickoff return yards in his career, Watson is also a credible threat in that phase. Texas has some returning options at kick returner, including Kris Boyd, who flashed at times last season, but Watson is another option for the staff to consider.
Overall, Watson doesn’t have the same type of upside that Carter and Young could eventually reach, but he’s a more reliable player right now and, at worst, will represent depth and insurance in case the two younger players struggle with ball security or maturation issues.
At best, it’s possible that Watson didn’t reach his maximum potential at Cal and could earn the starting role at Texas.