Blue Collar: Watson makes final preparations for NFL Draft at Pro Day

Published 12:11 pm Thursday, March 28, 2024

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By Carey Reeder | Managing Editor

“That blue-collar mentality, and just working hard.”

Nathaniel “Bookie” Watson is in the midst of the most crucial five-month period of his football career, but he is continuing to carry a mentality he developed in the small town of Maplesville throughout it.

Watson participated in the Mississippi State Pro Day on March 26 on the university’s campus, the next step in his preparations for the 2024 NFL Draft on April 25-27 in Detroit, Michigan. Watson showcased his skills in position-based drills to over 30 scouts in attendance, hopefully raising his draft stock with less than a month until the draft.

“I think (the Pro Day) was very important because they are filming it all and sending it to the coaches,” Watson said. “Just being able to get out here and show them I can move means a lot, and that I am slimmer now, so I know they like that.”

Watson’s journey to now has taken him through the football fields of Maplesville and eventually to George Walker Jr. Stadium at Maplesville High School where he played from 2014-2018, helping the Red Devils capture three consecutive AHSAA Class 1A state championships from 2014-2016. Watson played both ways and helped set state records at the school, such as setting the second fewest total yards allowed per game average in a single season at 95.6 YPG in 2016 with Watson at linebacker. He was a multi-time All-State performer at both wide receiver and athlete, and was the No. 15 ranked recruit in Alabama as a three-star prospect.

He took his next step on August 17, 2017 committing to Mississippi State University where he entered the program in 2018 low on the totem pole. However, he redshirted his first season and dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, and then in 2020, earned his first starts as a sophomore. By his junior season in 2021, Watson was starting at linebacker for the program and became a pivotal piece to their defense.

“Maplesville is a small town, Chilton County is small and everybody knows everybody. Being from that hometown and coming to Starkville to a blue-collar program that shows how much they love to work (made sense),” Watson said.

In 2022, Watson finished second in the Southeastern Conference with 113 tackles and led the team with 12 tackles for loss and six sacks. Then, in 2023, Watson’s final season in the program, he took off. A monstrous 137-tackle and 10-sack season earned him the AP SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the first player from Mississippi State to win the award and the only player in SEC history to lead the conference in both tackles and sacks in the same season.

He captured four All-American honors from outlets across the country and was named First Team All-SEC. Watson’s 137 tackles was the most by an MSU player since 1996, and he was the first MSU player to lead the SEC in sacks since the Chicago Bears’ Montez Sweat in 2017.

Watson’s final career numbers of 379 tackles and 21 sacks both rank seventh on the respective all-time lists.

Following the end of the 2023 season, Watson took off to Frisco, Texas to begin training for the NFL draft, and also spent some time in Phoenix, Arizona to train with other highly rated linebackers in the draft. He traveled back to Mississippi for the Pro Day and said he is feeling more comfortable being back in the familiar confines of Starkville.

“(Training) has been up and down just trying to stay in shape,” Watson said. “Coming back to Starkville and being around teammates you might lose your edge a little bit, but you have to keep it up. Just working hard every day to prove myself to these scouts.”

Watson added that the feedback he has gotten from NFL teams about his position work has been positive, and he believes he has handled interviews with teams well throughout the pre-draft process calling them “phenomenal” so far. As far as on the field, his drill-work, film and production speak for itself. Most of Watson’s interviews prior to the Pro Day have been with northern teams, such as the Cleveland Browns, but he has more visits scheduled in the coming weeks with a number of teams including the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks.

Watson has opened eyes during the pre-draft process beginning with his standout performance at the 2024 Senior Bowl in Mobile which earned him an invite to the 2024 NFL Combine. Some results from the combine included a 4.63 40-yard dash, 1.59 10-yard split, 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-foot, 3-inch broad jump. and NFL Next Gen Stats currently give Watson a 5.95 grade, which is eighth out of the draft eligible linebackers in the 2024 NFL Draft.

The Town of Maplesville has less than a month to wait to find out if they will have their fourth player from their town and high school reach the NFL. For Watson, he is hoping to add another NFL player to the long list of gridiron accolades he and his family have compiled in Maplesville. Watson’s family history in football dates back generations, including his uncle Harold Varner who played at Auburn University and in the NFL for 10 seasons. More recently, Watson’s cousin Johnathon Wilson signed with Huntingdon College on a football scholarship, and he has not been hesitant to instill wisdom in him already.

“I know (the players in the program) look at me as a role model, and I just want to be around them and give them as many pointers as I can give them,” Watson said. “It is just a blessing. Me and (Johnathon) were just talking the other day and I am just giving him as much advice as I can like ‘Take advantage of all your opportunities,’ because personally, I did not take advantage of them my freshman year, and I wish I could go back. You live and you learn, and I just told him that when you step on campus take advantage of all the resources they give you.”

Watson said he visited Maplesville on occasions his first few years at MSU, but in the backend of his college career, he started visiting more to see his family, workout at Maplesville High School and spend more time around the program and players.

Watson’s next plan is to continue to focus on training, taking care of business in preparation for the draft, and continuing to make the 641 citizens (2021 Census) of Maplesville proud.

“Shout out to Maplesville and all the support they have been giving me,” Watson said. “I love all the feedback I am getting from all the supporters at home, and it is just a blessing to have them supporting me and my family.”