UConn football's Eric Watts has been loyal, now senior ready to lead Huskies, chase NFL dreams
Aug. 7, 2023 STORRS — Eric Watts is sure things are looking up for the UConn football program. Since arriving here in 2019, he's known what rock bottom has felt like for too long.
The Huskies were a combined 3-21 with one win over an FBS school (UMass) in 2019 and 2021. Their 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they were on the field, the defense put up historically-bad numbers.
In 19 of 24 games, they allowed at least 30 points. But Watts stayed the course as upheaval with the struggles on the field and coaching changes off of it surrounded him. As things got tough, he remained tougher and true to the school and team instead of looking for something better somewhere else.
"I'm a loyal guy," Watts said. "Once I go somewhere, I'm there. I'm not going to jump around because something's a little tough.
You have to get through it and not look for the easy way out. I want to grind through the struggle and I've been through that struggle. I'm kind of seeing the light and you feel it's rewarding.
" The Huskies won six games and played in their first bowl game since 2015 in coach Jim Mora's first season a year ago. Watts — a 6-foot-5, 277-pound defensive end — enjoyed a breakout season that saw his stock rise and has him dreaming of playing on Sundays. But that's a year away for the senior, and there's a season at UConn to play first.
The Huskies open the 2023 campaign Aug. 31 when they entertain North Carolina State at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field. "Eric does an unbelievable job," UConn defensive line coach Kenny McClendon said.
"To now from last year he's taken a lot of big steps on what he needs to work on in his improvement. He has great athleticism. God has blessed him with great tools and length.
We tell him to use them every day. "He's not a talker. He's like the goofy one.
But at the end of the day he has the ability of very few, in my opinion. He can turn it on and turn it off. He can be joking and laughing and then he can see the temperature of the room and knows when to cut that mentality.
He leads in his own way. There's times when Eric speaks . .
. The beauty of it is because Eric doesn't just talk to talk. When he finally does speak, everyone listens.
He's a great leader and he leads by his play on this field which I think everyone on this team respects. " Watts grew up in Sumter, South Carolina, about a 10-minute drive from the hometown of UConn basketball legend and Naismith Hall of Fame inductee Ray Allen. When he arrived here, his weight was 220-225.
Looking back, he said, he was a kid playing against men. But he found a way to make an impact. "I was a little guy," Watts said.
"I practiced in the spring and got some reps with the ones and twos (on the depth chart) and they told me I had the ability to play. I locked in on the playbook and played my freshman year. "My first year I wasn't ready for college football.
I'll admit that now but I wouldn't admit that before. Over time, my development, my understanding of the game, has improved. I feel like the game has really slowed down for me.
At first, I was just trying to be where I wouldn't mess up. Once you can slow it down, it helps a lot. " Watts finished 2019 with 30 tackles in 12 games.
In 2021 upon the Huskies' return to action from the pandemic, he had 39 tackles in 10 games. A year ago in 13 games he had 49 tackles with 10 tackles for losses, including seven quarterback sacks and two forced fumbles while also blocking two kicks. Those numbers, while impressive, won't do as he heads into his final season here.
"From my stats last year, I just want to double," Watts said. "I want 20 TFLs, 14 sacks. I know it's high but I feel like I definitely can do it and that just makes me work even harder to reach those goals.
" Perhaps Watts has a sense of urgency with his final season at UConn near. But McClendon, in his second season on the Huskies' staff, feels it's a matter that he wants to build on last year's success that ended with the Huskies playing in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. "He's one of those guys, him and (Dal'mont Gourdine), who have been here for the long haul," McClendon said.
"They've seen it. Now they got a taste of success last year but there's a long way to go. That kick starts them to do a little bit more.
" The Huskies return 17 starters on both sides of the ball including their entire defensive line. Watts and McClendon talked about the depth they added in the offseason that will certainly help those starters stay fresher. With veterans like Watts and Gourdine on the line, linebacker Jackson Mitchell, and backs Durante Jones and Malik Dixon-Williams, the defense seems ready to step up under Mora's guidance.
There's no looking back. "You've been there with somebody when we were at the bottom," Watts said. "Losing games? We all sat and cried together like, 'Man, what are we going to do? We've got to figure this out.
' But I'd say that all made us tighter. Like, 'Bro, we've been there. ' So we know how we've got to push everybody so we don't go back.