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It came up every single time.
Scotty Walden, the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Southern Mississippi, talked to scouts from around 18 NFL teams about Quez Watkins and they all wanted to know the same thing.
What happened after the 2018 season?
"There was a perception out there, ‘Well, he got kicked out of school for academics, he must not be very smart, very bright.' That's not the case," Walden said in a Zoom interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia last week. "The guy, and he'll tell you this, he was lazy in the classroom.
"For whatever reason, that just wasn't his cup of tea. He didn't wake up thinking about going to math class every day. That's just not what fired Quez up. What fired him up was going out and catching post routes for touchdowns. But those things definitely came up."
After his redshirt sophomore season in 2018, Watkins was forced to leave Southern Miss and enroll in a junior college near his home in Alabama for the spring semester to get his academic issues straightened out. Walden said he didn't even recruit any other receivers that spring. He just kept in touch with Watkins and hoped he was doing what he needed to do to regain eligibility.
When Watkins re-enrolled at Southern Miss that summer and showed up for his final college season, he was a different person. Going through all that changed him.
And Walden isn't so sure Watkins would be in the NFL right now if it didn't happen. Watkins ended up having a spectacular 2019 season and the Eagles took the speedy receiver in the sixth round (No. 200) in April's draft.
"I think that right there matured him," Walden said. "He grew from it."
The coaching staff at Southern Miss require their receivers to carry water bottles at all times because hydration is important. When Watkins returned for the 2019 season, Walden was preparing to get on Watkins' case about the water bottle and about going to class. But he didn't have to worry about it.
All of a sudden, Watkins was taking hydration, nutrition and his studies seriously. Walden said it might not sound like much, but he even saw Watkins wearing a backpack to class - that was a sight he had never seen before.
"To me, that's a change. That's a big change," Walden said. "That's when I knew that this kid is coming back on a mission. He had the mindset that, ‘I'm not going to take it for granted. Because football was taken away from me and I didn't know what I was going to do. I got it back now and I'm not going to let it slip out of my hands.'"
And it didn't end there. That type of discipline and attention to detail carried over to the field. In 2019, Watkins had 64 catches, 1,178 yards and six touchdowns.
"It made me grow up," Watkins said in an interview in August 2019 with Heath Hinton of Big Gold Nation. "During that time I didn't have nobody in my corner, I felt like I didn't have nobody in my corner. So I had to grow up as a man and take care of my business.
"It made me more passionate about the game and love the game and not take anything for granted."
So when Walden was asked by scouts about Watkins, he was eager to tell them the truth about the academic issues - and the two-game suspension in 2019 imposed by the NCAA for not fulfilling classroom hours - because it was a story of triumph in his mind. Watkins had those issues and he overcame them.
The raw talent
In a way, that's what made Watkins' 2018 season even more impressive. In his redshirt sophomore season, Watkins had 72 catches for 889 yards and nine touchdowns and that was before he matured. So in Walden's eyes, he did all that based on pure talent. And there's a lot of talent.
Watkins arrived to Southern Miss in 2016 but redshirted his freshman season. By the time Walden got hired before the 2017 season, he was already hearing some of the stories about Watkins, the redshirt who kept roasting the defense on scout team.
In his redshirt freshman year, there were flashes. He caught 23 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns, but Watkins was inconsistent. In 2018, he exploded, starting the season off with an eight-catch, 138-yard, three-touchdown performance against Jackson State. And in 2019, he was even better on his way to becoming an NFL draft pick.
"The kid has got real speed," Walden said. "I think the one thing that is deceptive is his stride length is unbelievable. He's a very long kid. So it doesn't look like sometimes he's moving that fast, but he is covering ground and he's covering it in a hurry. I think with DBs he went against, it may not have felt like he was truly getting on them but all of a sudden, their cushion's ate up because he's got such a long stride."
At the 2020 combine, Watkins ran a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash. It was the second-fastest time among all competitors.
The next step
The exciting thing to Walden is that he's convinced Watkins' best football is ahead of him. The maturity and professional approach he saw last year was a necessary improvement and he knows it needs to continue.
"This ain't something you can just go eat donuts and do whatever you want and you're going to show up and be faster than everybody when you show up Saturday," he said. "You gotta start playing chess, not checkers."
Watkins gets that now.
Walden heard from many teams during the pre-draft process, but he knew the Eagles were serious about Watkins when he received a phone call from his friend Andrew Breiner, whom the Eagles hired as a pass game analyst for this upcoming season.
The Eagles drafted two receivers before Watkins in April - Jalen Reagor in the first round and John Hightower in the fifth - so there's not even a guarantee Watkins makes the opening day roster. But he has an intriguing skillset and now he has the maturity to get the most out of it.
"I think as he continues to mature and grow like we're talking about," Walden said, "I think he can be as good as he wants to be."
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