Texas running back Tre Watson knew he wanted to return for one final year of college football. He just needed to relearn how to walk first.
It all happened before Watson arrived on the 40 Acres as a graduate transfer. Last year, he entered his senior campaign at Cal-Berkeley. He was placed on award watch lists for the nation’s best running back, and with three years of college experience under his belt, he was ready for his best year yet.
Then, in the second game of the 2017 season, Watson took a hit to his right knee.
“I hopped off the field,” Watson said. “But adrenaline took over and I was like, ‘I’m good.’ They checked it out and it was pretty sturdy. I was telling my coach, ‘Put me in. I’m good.’ I go in, I am setting up the safety and as soon as I plant, it just gives.”
It was his ACL and MCL — both were torn. His senior season was over.
However, Watson was still eligible for one more season as a graduate. All he needed to do was get into graduate school. There was one issue, though: Watson said he was unable to get into any of the graduate programs at Cal. In January, Watson announced his intention to transfer as a graduate student and opened up his recruitment.
Unable to benefit from the luxury of rehabbing at a university after undergoing surgery, Watson headed back to his hometown of Corona, California –– a city nearly 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles –– for physical therapy.
“It was tough in the beginning,” Watson said. “The whole process of an ACL injury, coming back, learning how to walk again –– that started out pretty tough, but once you get past that point, things start clicking for you.”
Watson continued to train with the same person he’s gone to since he was in high school: Eliseo Cabildo at Winner Circle Athletics in Corona. Eliseo said Watson never missed a day and exhibited an incredible work ethic. But he still suffered from a torn ACL and MCL, and needed time to recover from surgery.
“It's a pretty significant injury,” Cabildo said. “Getting range of motion back in that knee is one of the hardest things and also being able to trust that your knee will hold up through training and also through any physical movement. It's a very mentally challenging injury as well.”
After months of therapy and college visits, Watson announced he was taking his talents to Texas just one week before he graduated with a degree in sociology. It didn’t take long for Texas fans to get a feel for the confidence Watson exudes.
In May, he told The Athletic, “I think I’m the best (running back) in the country. I just need the opportunity to show it.
Texas gave him a shot, now he has the opportunity to “show it,” and he is so far. Not even a year after his injury, Watson reported to preseason camp and checked out as the starting running back. And he is leading in more ways than one.
“When he makes a mistake he owns up to it, and but he's really, really energetic and is very positive with his new teammates,” Herman said. “They really like being around him.”
Watson hasn’t had much time to develop much chemistry with the guys on the roster, but it appears his teammates are already fully aware of his personality and the level of his confidence.
“That’s him. He’s just loud,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said. “He's a very outgoing young man. You never really have to worry about what he’s thinking because he’ll tell you.”
As for Watson’s opportunity, he’ll get that on Saturday against a familiar foe. Growing up in Southern California, Watson was like most kids, watching the USC Trojans.
“As a little kid I was a USC fan,” Watson said. “I wore 5 because Reggie Bush was my favorite college football player.”
Tre said he was rooting for USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, but that he’s experienced a change of heart these past few years. In his four seasons at Cal, Watson’s Golden Bears went 0–4 against USC. Now, his opportunities at beating USC have dwindled down to one last shot: Saturday night.
“It’s personal, man,” Watson said. “I’m from Southern California, so USC is something that I need.”
Watson said he stays in contact with USC cornerback Olaijah Griffin, who he trained with in Corona, according to Cabildo. When asked if they are talking this week, Watson jokingly replied, “It’s done now.”
Watson has come a long way from rehabbing in Corona and an even longer way from cheering on USC in the 2006 national title. Now, the 22-year-old is claiming the starting running back title for one of the biggest games of the season. And he isn’t taking it for granted.
“I can’t wait to run up this tunnel,” Watson said. “I came here for the spring game and saw the amount of fans that were there. That was like the home games that we have at my other school. Just seeing that, and knowing we’re playing a home game here, I can’t wait. This is going to be a blessing to experience this.”