The nearly 30,000 tweets and 1,700 followers are a bit misleading. On Keith Watkins’ personal social media power rankings, Twitter resides near the bottom. The refined video-editing capacity of Vine and the vintage retro filter effects available to Instagram users are more exciting and visually stimulating ways to connect with friends and family.
Because what makes 140-character micro-blogs delivered instantaneously with the ease of a click or smartphone thumb jab and immense dispersive potential of mentions, retweets and DMs on one uniformly streamlined interface fun, anyway?
“Twitter’s boring,” Watkins said Wednesday of the popular social media service that counts new and mostly not-bored users every day. “It’s getting old now.” Don’t get it twisted: follow Watkins @IRunYouCheer3, and you won’t be disappointed by the stream-of-consciousness monologue sporadically beamed over the course of any single day, but if you want to see, read or hear Watkins escape his boring element, forget Twitter. Forget the boring stuff.
In approaching his college search, Watkins followed that logic, when he chose Northwestern over a handful of BCS programs, including Cincinnati, Kansas, Iowa, Arizona State and West Virginia. In the end, it came down to West Virginia and the Wildcats, and after visiting Evanston and interacting with Northwestern players and coaches, Watkins knew the opportunity for an experience that didn’t even scratch the surface of typical college football visit boredom – spring game, meeting with coaches, talking to a few players; all standard and formulaic and boring – Watkins felt he had an opportunity he couldn’t afford to pass up.
“I don’t like guys that are boring and uncomfortable,” he said. “I’m always willing to joke and have fun, so I like to be around guys who can do that.”
Before he could commit to NU in August, Watkins needed to decide on a position. Running back seemed like an easy choice. In four seasons at Moeller (Ohio) High School, Watkins piled up 2,149 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns, averaged 6.9 yards per carry, captained his 2012 state championship-winning team and was rated as the 34th best running back in the country by Rivals.
Most programs saw those numbers, saw Watkins’ dynamic running ability and tape highlights and made the head-smackingly obvious next move: they recruited him as a running back. Northwestern wasn’t exempt from this group early in the process, but after talking with his high school coach and reviewing long-term career plans with his father, and after already receiving an offer from Northwestern coaches fully convinced they were pursuing one of Ohio’s best running back prospects, Watkins changed his mind.
Defensive back would be his position in college.
“It was an important decision,” he said. “But I feel like it’s what’s best for me.”
Whatever faux-boring measuring device Watkins chooses to explain his social media habits had nothing at all to do with his decision to switch positions. Watkins will give you good, concrete, simple reasons. The first has to do with sheer math, and a gradual trend at the highest levels of professional football: NFL teams simply don’t value running backs the way they used to.
In the last three years of the NFL draft, there have been just four running backs taken in the first round. Watkins wants to play professional football, and running back – no matter how distinguished his backfield credentials, or how measurably potent his high school track record projected at the next level – is a highly variable and highly taxing position increasingly defined by shortened career lengths and frequent injury.
The wear and tear of three downs of pounding between mammoth offensive lineman and having linebackers ram polycarbonate helmets into unprotected knees and legs is a dicey proposition long-term, even for a highly-touted back like Watkins.
At defensive back, where Watkins already had the prefect body type and natural pass-defending instincts to make the transition, Watkins saw longevity, an opportunity to play a position he truly enjoys and every-down responsibilities (one-on-one coverage, run support, the occasional corner blitz, etc.) that require him to draw on the speed and explosiveness and instinctual aptitude that made him such an electric backfield threat in high school.
The conversion was easy.
“If you really look at it, if you want to last in the league, it just makes more sense,” Watkins said of his position switch. “Defensive back isn’t easy or anything, but if you look at the drafts, they get taken higher and more often. Running back is a lot of wear and tear.”
Changing positions could expedite Watkins’ incorporation into first-team activities. When he arrives on campus this summer, Watkins will enter an unsettled cornerback situation that could allow him to not only earn a spot on the depth chart and carve out a key reserve role, but outright win the starting job. Sophomore Nick VanHoose, after a strong if injury-impaired 2012 season, is a shoe-in starter at one cornerback spot. The other remains a mostly unresolved entity, and Watkins – if his preseason camp efforts are so thoroughly impressive and so comparatively superior, as to make a redshirt season, eligibility timeline concerns aside, an unviable personnel move – could be the answer.
That would be the best possible outcome for Watkins, the most immediately gratifying reward of his decision to switch positions, but if it doesn’t work out in his first season, if coaches decide Watkins is better suited to sit out a year while learning under his more experienced DB peers, Watkins doesn't begrudge the idea of working out on scout team, sharpening his skills in a less-hectic practice setting and doing everything necessary to best position himself for a run at a starting spot next season.
“I’m just coming here to make an impact,” he said.
As long as he’s not bored, or forced to stare at Twitter all day, or some combination of both, Watkins will do just fine in his first year of college football.