When his family moved from a townhouse to a house, middle linebacker Jackie Watkins moved to the penthouse of local football.
Watkins, a 6-foot, 230-pound junior, transferred from Stonewall Jackson to Hylton prior to this academic year. After earning second-team all-Cedar Run District honors for the Raiders, he was a first-team all-Cardinal District selection this year for the Bulldogs. This fall, Hylton has a 10-1 record and a district title, which will become a regional title if it wins at home tonight against Osbourn Park. By contrast, Watkins’ former team was winless in 10 games — just one year after finishing 5-5 and nearly making the postseason.
“I’m here because of us moving — the football was just a plus to it,” Watkins said. “I didn’t want to leave my friends at Stonewall, but it didn’t take me long to fit in with a whole new team. I make friends pretty easily.”
In the Bulldogs’ 4-4 defense, Watkins plays the strong side in the middle of the linebackers, while senior Donovan Bates plays the weak side. Neither one has the same responsibility of last year’s lone middle linebacker in the 4-3 system, USA Today national high school defensive player of the year Ahmad Brooks.
Together, Watkins and Bates have been part of a Hylton defense that has stifled opponents to a 3.5-point scoring average. At this stage last year, Hylton had given up 4.5 points per game. Watkins leads the team with 131 tackles (68 as the lead tackler and 63 assisted). He also has nine tackles for a loss and one interception.
“Of all the guys we had back, I didn’t know who would turn out to be that middle-linebacker type,” first-year Hylton coach Lou Sorrentino said. “But Jackie has been a real good run stopper inside. He’s a hard working kid, a tough kid.”
And in a program that has won four consecutive Division 6, Northwest Region championships, Watkins also brings an appreciation his teammates may have lacked. After starting as a freshman and a sophomore at Stonewall Jackson, but never reaching the playoffs, he’s thrilled to still be playing on Thanksgiving weekend.
“He brings an air of freshness to the playoffs for us,” Sorrentino said. “He’s not an excitable guy per se, but he’s sure excited to be in the playoffs.”
In last week’s first-round regional shutout of Gar-Field, Watkins was in on a team-high 16 tackles. To get those tackles, Watkins faces competition from his own teammates.
“At Stonewall, it felt like everybody depended on me to make a tackle,” Watkins said. “Here everybody can make a tackle, so I have to work extra hard. It’s more like a team defense than a defense based on one person.”
Watkins said he keeps in touch with several former Raider teammates. “They’re upset [at the 0-10 finish this season]. They said at the end of the year that no one wanted to play, that it seemed like some people weren’t playing hard.”
That’s not the case for Hylton, which has collected seven shutout wins this season. One of those was a 49-0 victory over Osbourn Park in Week 2. Last year, Watkins played on a Stonewall team that split two games against OP, which finished 4-6.
“Their running back, [Cedar Run District offensive player of the year] Roland Hilliard, is basically the key for us,” Watkins said.
Watkins was a running back in middle school. He was wearing an Eddie George jersey during the interview for this article and he says his favorite all-time National Football League player is Barry Sanders. Still, he’s as satisfied with his current position as he is with his school.
“I’d rather be a linebacker anyway,” Watkins said. “On offense, you don’t get to hit people. I’m happy where I am right now.”