* Thirteen months ago, after Dan Persa tore his Achilles against Iowa, Evan Watkins was the one who took over at quarterback. But then came Persa's return and Kain Colter's emergence and Trevor Siemian's development, which led to this sighting on this December morning. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Watkins working at superback. "Evan's a great young person and wants to play and wants to have a role," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald would explain. "I also think he's honest with himself and sees where he's at in his career. . .and what he can maybe do on the field. He came to us and said, 'Hey can I maybe try to play another position?'"
"It was on my mind a lot," Watkins himself would say. "It was something I wanted to do to help the team out next year and in the future."
And how has the adjustment gone?
"First practice, you're not used to hitting, basically, and fundamentals and stuff like that. But I've got five practices in now and I'm getting the hang of it. I'm having a blast out there. It's a bunch of fun, something I want to do. I'm enjoying it a lot."
Was it hard to give up being a quarterback?
"I've been a quarterback my whole life, so it was difficult at first. But it gets to a point where you realize reality and my main focus is I want to help the team, I want to play, I want to get out there and do stuff. So if that's what it takes to do that, that's what I'll do."
* When he was last viewed, Daniel Jones was at corner in lieu of the injured Jordan Mabin and getting baptized to the realities of Big Ten football by Michigan State. It would be a rough rite for the redshirt freshman, but not only was he back as a starting corner in this practice. He was refreshingly candid when asked about his afternoon with the Spartans. "During the game, of course, I felt horrible," he would say at one point. "I gave up two or three plays that hurt us. But looking back at it, they were plays I learned from and I feel I still competed and played hard when I was out there. But those three plays always stick with you."
Then, at another point, he would add, "I feel I was prepared. But hats off to them. Michigan State, they had great players. Those three guys, (quarterback) Kirk Cousins and (receivers) Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham, those three guys will probably be playing in the NFL one day. So it was good competition and they executed and there were times when I didn't."
He had, before that day, spent minimal time as a 'Cat corner, playing there only when Mabin was dinged up at the end of the Nebraska game and when it was mop-up time in the Rice game. "So actually, with real bullets and the game on the line, it (had) been two years," he said when asked how long it had been since he had seen extensive action. But that is what he will presumably get against the Aggies and so, he went on, "I've definitely been in the film room a lot more to learn not my job, per se, but the whole defense's job so I know who's going to be where, where my help's from, where I'm needed, where I fit, things like that.
"Then also, during finals week, I was up here watching Texas A&M trying to pick up tendencies, looking at the quarterback, seeing who they like to go to, what they do on third down, things of that nature. So I've been working. I'm definitely trying to revamp and have a complete 360 and be an impact player as opposed to a guy who's just trying to hold on."
Will he have any sense of looking to redeem himself against the Aggies?
"That's always in the back of your mind," he said, refreshingly candid once more. "But my main focus is to just play hard and to do things I know I'm capable of. I know I can make plays and I can be a help, an asset, to the team. It's just focusing on every play and getting the experience behind me. I think it (his time against the Spartans) was good. It was a great learning experience and now it's just focusing on each rep and doing my job every single time."
* More on this subject: Mabin, as we mentioned in our last post, had surgery after getting injured against the Spartans, which ended his stellar 'Cat career. "It's one of those situations where it projects to everything will be fine, he'll come back 100 percent," Fitzgerald offered on Saturday. "It's just an unfortunate situation. Feel for him. But as someone who experienced missing a bowl game due to injury, he can still have a good time. He'll have fun.". . . Mabin, it turns out, has been working closely with Jones since last spring and has openly shared his senior secrets with his callow backup. Then, Jones reported, "After the game, he texted me and told me to keep my head up and to keep working hard. He's been like a big brother through this whole situation. It's unfortunate his season ended. But he's been helping me along."
* As for the practice itself: "There are, what, still 21 days to play, so if we were peaking right now, I'd be a little bit concerned," said Fitzgerald. "But I think the guys' attitudes are great. I think they're happy to be out of finals and to start to turn our focus to game-plan stuff and really what we need to do to get prepared."
* There was also this from Fitzgerald when asked about the 'Cats' approach between now and New Year's Eve: "We look at these opportunities a couple ways. To improve and get better, especially here early in bowl prep for our younger players. Knock the rust off for the vets, but give 'em enough time so they feel fresh mentally and physically. Then, as we get closer, we start to ramp up the game plan more. We kind of take a two-week approach to getting prepared, kind of like we would in the opener. When it's time to work, we're going to work. And when it's time to have fun, we're going to party like rock stars. I think the guys enjoy the fact that, because we're here in Chicago, we can have two bowl weeks. We can have a bowl week here. . .and then go home for the holidays, saddle back up, get back together (on Christmas Day) and go down there as a team on the 26th."
* To interpret: The 'Cats will hold six more practices before taking a Dec. 20-24 Holiday Break. But they will have some fun as well. Already, during finals' week, the players organized a Paint Ball outing and, to come, are outings to go bowling, to be honored at a Blackhawks' game and to Second City. A Bulls' game is usually part of their bowl-prep routine as well, but, well, we all know why they won't be taking in one of those this year. . . The young players referred to by Fitzgerald are primarily the redshirt freshmen, who went at each other live for the final 12 minutes of Saturday's practice. "We want to get all of our young players who really haven't been in the mix the equivalent of maybe how many live reps they would get in spring practice. The target is to get to a couple hundred live reps for them," said Fitzgerald, explicating an ancillary benefit of a bowl appearance much coveted by coaches. "We want them to go play. We get them involved, obviously, in the fundamentals, the ABCs, but we want them to play a little bit and see what they can do and learn a little bit. Some of them haven't been in a football game situation since high school, so getting them back going in that is good."