Watkins finds place with Terps Guard has disposition to succeed in new spot

September 27, 1996|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Mitch Watkins could have stayed home and been a big man on campus, but that would have been in Division III. He would have been established in the Yankee Conference by now, but he wasn't interested in I-AA, either.

What Watkins wanted when he came out of James M. Bennett High in Salisbury in 1992 was to play major-college football. Recruiters said it was beyond his reach, but guess who will start for Maryland tomorrow, on national television, at West Virginia?

"I'm still fighting for something, still trying to prove myself," said Watkins, the Terps' right guard. "In my eyes, I've still got to get up there to everyone else's level."

Watkins isn't driven by perception, but fact. Maryland's punter, Russell Edwards, is also a walk-on, but Watkins is the only offensive or defensive starter in the Atlantic Coast Conference who is not on scholarship.

Over the summer, coach Mark Duffner put walk-on Craig Fitzgerald on scholarship, but that was before he emerged as the starter at tight end. Duffner has taken care of other walk-ons who have helped Maryland, and he'll probably do the same for Watkins next year. How could he not reward Watkins' determination?

"It's not like he's taken over the position, but Mitch has done an incredible job," said Dan Dorazio, the offensive coordinator who trains Maryland's offensive linemen. "What you've got to remember is that until the spring, he had never played any offense here. He's consistently getting better. The kid is tough, he's dependable and he's a fighter."

Watkins was all that in high school, but major-college recruiters only saw the holes in his resume.

The Eastern Shore isn't a must stop for football recruiters, and Watkins didn't start at Bennett High until his junior year. That season ended in September with a broken leg, so there was no game film to send to colleges.

As a senior, Watkins starred as a 225-pound two-way tackle. He could have commuted to Salisbury State, accepted partial scholarships to Delaware and Villanova, or taken Navy's advice and looked into its prep school, but he had a quixotic notion about playing in the ACC.

After a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, Watkins arrived at Maryland in 1993 with no promises from Duffner. A year later, Duffner didn't have any defensive tackles, either, and Watkins, then a redshirt freshman, started the first two games.

"I was on top of the world, but I took the wrong approach," Watkins said. "I should not have been so overcome by what I had done, but I was. I was satisfied. I'm not satisfied anymore."

Watkins played little in the last eight games of 1994, and last year was buried farther in the depth chart when defensive tackles Johnnie Hicks and Tim Watson regained their eligibility. He ended last season discouraged, wondering if his quest was at an end.

"The low point came last year during the Christmas break," said Brad Watkins, Mitch's father. "I started talking about this season, and he said, 'I'll give you a decision in a couple of weeks on whether I'm going to continue playing or not.'

"When he left for school in January, he shook my hand, said, 'I'm going to do the job, I'm going to start and I'm going to win a scholarship.' Out the door he went."

An only child, Watkins isn't spoiled, just stubborn in the pursuit of goals.

The tape of tomorrow's game will go in his athletic archives, which include video of him on ESPN, winning a BMX age-group world championship in 1984. As a member of a factory team based in St. Petersburg, Fla., he traveled the bicycle motocross circuit 40 weeks a year, then abruptly "retired."

He was 10 years old.

"Mitch said he wanted to quit," his father said. "He said, 'If I go to Holland [site of the 1985 worlds] and finish second, people will say I failed.' He had fun with it, and was ready to try something else. When he does any project, he goes about it 100 percent."

That's evident in the weight room. Carl Bond set the bench-press record for Maryland football players with 485 pounds in 1985. Jamie Wilson lifted 475 a few years later. With a best of 460, Watkins is No. 3, and climbing.

"I'll have that next year," Watkins said.

Watkins, 6 feet 2 and 280 pounds, began practicing with the offensive line at the end of last season. He knows that he's starting in part because Maryland is searching for answers after failing to score a touchdown in five of its past 10 games, and because so many of the Terps' offensive line recruits haven't panned out.

Remember Ron White? The most highly touted player in the class that arrived in 1993, White left after one semester, went to a junior college and is academically ineligible to play for Kent State. Pete Sorrentino, the other big line recruit that year, never recovered from a 1994 knee injury and withdrew from school last summer.

Watkins beat out the incumbent, Aaron Henne, near the end of August camp.

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