CHARLESTON — After coming to Eastern Illinois from Itasca Community College, defensive lineman Levi Watson struggled to find playing time for the Panthers last season. Watson did stand out in the loss to Northern Illinois in the second game of the season last year with three tackles and a blocked field goal, but he only managed eight tackles on the season. He did play in all 11 games but as a reserve.
It was hard for Watson to crack the rotation that included seniors Mack Weaver and David Johnson, junior Josh Price and sophomore Terrell Greer. Even though EIU did consistently rotate their defensive linemen last season, those four were the stalwarts. So Watson waited his turn because Johnson and Weaver were graduating.
Watson put in the time to make sure he would make an impact this season. While EIU's defense has struggled this season, it's not because of Watson, who is enjoying a breakout campaign. Watson has 7.5 tackles for loss, which is almost as many total tackles as he had last year. Watson has 28 total tackles this season and three sacks. He is second on the team with three pass breakups.
It's the moment Watson has been waiting for.
"Just being a senior, it gets to you. Just trying your hardest. This year I have a lot to prove to everybody. I am just trying to do the best I can to show this can be done," Watson said. "I definitely knew I had the target on my back and being the guy that had to step up. Just being a senior, I am just doing the best I can do to be a team player."
Watson's versatility has also helped him. While Watson has the size to play defensive tackle, he can also move to defensive end in the 4-2-5 that EIU used to run. When the team switched to three down linemen a few games ago, Watson showed he can still play either at end and is strong enough to handle the lone tackle spot.
"He plays all up and down the line. He can play five-technique, he can play four, which we are playing a lot now, and he's really good on the nose (tackle) with his quickness and pad level and he does a good job with his hands," EIU coach Kim Dameron said.
Watson feels he can do anything he's asked of on the defensive line.
"Anything that comes with it. If you can believe it, you can do it," Watson said. "You just always have to look at film and the best ability to work it."
Watson definitely is far from home. The senior is originally from Aurora, Colorado, and played for Aurora Central High School, where he had 72 tackles and 17 total sacks in his final two seasons. Watson then enrolled at Itasca Community College up in northern Minnesota. He played two seasons there, and as a sophomore, he had 35 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. He wound up on a couple of teams' radars, but EIU gave him the best opportunity to play NCAA Division I football.
"I had a guy that went to Itasca with me and he told me to look at Eastern Illinois and I know I can make something happen here," said Watson who is 6-5, 285 pounds. "I basically trusted my gut and knew I could make the best out of it here."
Now Watson has gone from a force on the line at Itasca to a force on the line in the Ohio Valley Conference. His 7.5 tackles for loss are third in the OVC so far. His three sacks are already just as many as EIU's team leader (David Johnson with 3.5) had last season.
The reason Watson is disruptive up front is because of what he calls his "knockback" move.
"My dad always said, just know that somebody in the stands is always looking at you. Just beat the guy in front of you, that's all that move is," Watson said. "It's a strength thing and a mindset, it's definitely both. (Strength) coach (Jordan) Davis really pushed us a lot. He told us to get power in our arms if you want to do it."
Dameron said Watson has made some big plays all season and expects the senior to keep making those same plays for the rest of the season.
"He has made plays all year long. He's really done well and it's been fun watching him," Dameron said. "He plays with passion and he knows what he is doing now. He is a physical kid and has some pop to him. I am really glad that we have him."