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After missing the 2016 season, Keith Watkins II is ready to make his senior year count

Watkins can’t wait to return to action — and Pat Fitzgerald can’t wait to get him back.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Northwestern vs Tennessee Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Keith Watkins II was just doing what he does best.

It was the third day of fall camp in Evanston, and the football team was scrimmaging 7-on-7. On a routine deep pass, Watkins leapt through the air, breaking up the pass and preventing a big gain—something Northwestern fans had seen regularly during the 2015 season.

The leap caused the wide receiver to fall, which in turn took down Watkins. He felt a soreness in his knee, but it was nothing too bad; it didn’t feel like a tear or even a pull. Like any other play, Watkins got up, jogged back to his position and lined up again. Like any other practice, he finished it. And like any other day, he iced up afterward and went to sleep.

The next day, however, was unlike any other Watkins had experienced.

“The next morning I woke up and I just couldn’t see my kneecap. It was humongous,” he said.

Watkins then got an MRI on his knee, before returning to the hospital that night to find out the results.

“That night, I found out that [my ACL] was torn. It was rough. It was a sad day,” he said.

Alexa Bannerman, a team trainer in the room with the then-junior cornerback, hugged Watkins as tears rolled down his face. He knew his season would be over before it even began.

“This was the first time I cried in—I can’t even remember the last time I cried about something,” Watkins said. “Alexa went from being a trainer to being like a mom.”

“I was shocked,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He just jumped up to catch and ball and landed. He practiced for another hour-and-a-half that day. Here’s a guy who’s an All-Big Ten level player, an NFL player. To have a non-contact injury take his year was tough.”

After receiving the difficult news, the Cincinnati native had to come to terms with temporary, new roles for the season: cheerleader and mentor. Watkins took young corners Trae Williams and Montre Hartage under his wing, giving them advice and confidence boosts once injuries thrust the inexperienced duo into action earlier than anticipated.

“I tried to do as much as I could, just talking to the guys, making sure they were doing the little things,” he said. “Myself and Matthew Harris was just pretty much there for them, putting two cents in here and there.”

Though Watkins was still always around, it wasn’t the same for him. Not being on the field with his best friends was hard, even when successes came. While he was happy for his teammates when Northwestern captured a Pinstripe Bowl victory, it didn’t garner the same feeling it would’ve for Watkins had he played himself.

Watkins was present, yet aloof at the same time.

But as this offseason has progressed, so has Watkins’ health. After six difficult, grueling months—both mentally and physically—of rehab and physical therapy, Watkins is running and cutting again—and shooting for a full return by early April.

With Watkins’ return in sight, Pat Fitzgerald couldn’t be more excited about the team’s secondary prospects for next fall.

“What does it mean for this year? It means that we get a dude back, I mean we get a great player back,” Fitzgerald said. “Anytime you got competition man, it gives us an opportunity to have some strength. It’s gonna be great to get him back.”

With Watkins and Hartage—an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention pick by the media last season—plus Godwin Igwebuike—a second team All-Big Ten pick himself last season— and Kyle Queiro coming back at safety, Watkins thinks the defensive backfield can be the tenacious secondary they were supposed to be a year ago. He also thinks it’ll be extraordinarily fun.

“I’m just ready to have some fun out there, just come with swag,” he said. “I think with the team, a lot of the juice comes from the defensive backs so hopefully we keep that up this year.”

The ride hasn’t been everything what Keith Watkins II would’ve wanted, but he’s ready to be back doing what he loves with the people he loves.

“I know this is my last year. I know that everything that I’m putting in is gonna pay off,” Watkins said. “I just wanna be back out there with my guys.”