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Penn's Justin Watson looking to go out on top

Justin Watson, who will go down as one of the all-timers, will play his last game Saturday at Franklin Field against Cornell.

Justin Watson has had a record-setting career for the Quakers.
Justin Watson has had a record-setting career for the Quakers.Read moreAvi Steinhardt / For the Inquirer

Justin Watson has a bunch of talent, but it's about what he does with it. And what the record-setting Penn wide receiver has mostly done with his skill set is everything you'd expect from one of the best to ever play at Franklin Field — or in the Ivy League.

"I just think he's had this inner drive, from all aspects as a young person," Penn coach Ray Priore said Wednesday. "One of his best friends on the team, [fellow senior] Nick Bokun, they asked him what Justin doesn't do well. And he looked, and he pondered. Then he said, 'He doesn't drive a car very well.' Which meant he does do all the other things.

"I think the guys look at him, and we as coaches look at him, in awe. He's the first one out to practice and the last to leave after prayer group. He comes to special-teams meetings, and he's not even on special teams. He's that determined, that much of a team player. That's a great thing for the program."

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound product of South Fayette High in Western Pennsylvania doesn't see his leadership as anything worth pointing out. He feels it's just part of being joined together in something bigger than he is. Something that resulted in Ivy championships the last two seasons.

"That's just been my life," Watson noted, rather nonchalantly. "Nothing's been more important than hard work. You can get accolades or records, but that doesn't mean I'm too big for anything. I know a lot of eyes are on me. As a captain, I should be in the special teams meeting. If we're going to say special teams are important, the captain should be there making sure we're all on the right page. If they say it's important, I'm with it."

The Quakers (5-4, 3-3 Ivy League) will finish their season Saturday at home against Cornell (3-6, 3-3). They've won their last three games after losing their first three in the league by a combined 11 points, including two on the final play (one in overtime). So there won't be a third straight title. But neither will it be a 2-8 season, as it was in 2014. And that's something, too.

"The two championships are what I'm most proud of," Watson said. "Those stay with you the rest of your life. Winning's fun. When we had that four-game losing streak, we didn't want to go through another 2-8. We'd been through that. We had a team-first players-only meeting. I first met with the seniors. And we've been bringing a lot of energy. We wanted to keep doing it for each other. This is about how much we care for each other. And this week is the last time this team is ever going to be out there together. I don't think that's hit me yet. These last few weeks have been my last everything."

Watson has caught at least two passes in each of his 39 games. Nobody in Ivy history has had one reception in 40 consecutive games. He's one touchdown from setting a Penn season record of 14 and two from tying the Ivy record of 15. His 13 TDs this year lead FCS, and his nine consecutive games with a TD catch are the longest active streak at that level. He's also 84 yards from becoming Penn's all-time leader in all-purpose yards.

This season, he has 68 catches for 891 yards, with a long of 80. Bokun, a tight end, is second on the team, with 19 for 276.

And yes, Watson is considered a pro prospect. Maybe even draftable. A Penn player hasn't been drafted in a long time.

"Virtually every NFL team has been here once," Priore said. "Half have been here twice, and a third have been here three times. He has the measurables. It might depend on him getting to an all-star game and having the chance to perform against other talented players. Then, a lot of it comes down to being in the right situation with the right team.

"He can do all the little things, but he's also done the most spectacular plays. He's played up to the moment. But that's what those kind of guys do. And there's not a whole lot of them. Somebody has to throw the ball to him, and we've got to block for him. But he's got that little extra pixie dust that sets him apart. But he's so humble about it. That's what makes it even better."

And now it's down to one final opportunity to leave a piece of himself out there. As you'd expect, he has every intention of making the most of it.

"It's a little crazy to think that it's going to be over," Watson said. "I think it will really hit me on Saturday, when I walk out with my parents. I'm trying not to think about it. I just want to lead this team one more time and go out the right way.

"We've left something here as a template for others to follow. If you act a certain way, you achieve success, and you win championships. The young guys can see how we went about it. This has been a season of what-ifs. When we look back, we won't be fully satisfied, because anything less than a championship is disappointing. But we stuck together when a lot of teams might have just packed it in. I'll always be proud of that, too."

And maybe he'll even get to run back a kick or two in his farewell.

"I've been working on that one all year," Watson said, laughing. "You never know. It could work out on Saturday."

It already has worked out for Watson. In a memorable way.