CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Keala Watson always does what the coaches ask, according to UH assistant coach Jeff Reinebold.
Watson’s a thinker
The UH defensive tackle also likes to create havoc on the field
The strength of schedule debate goes long and strong in the Hawaii defensive line meeting room. With so many honor students, the Warriors' front-four players have to sort out their academic rankings by degree of difficulty.
Defensive end Karl Noa recently won a district all-academic award, but tackle Keala Watson is right up there, too.
"Karl's only taking about four credits and has a 4.0 right now. He's graduating this semester," said Watson, when asked who is doing the equivalent of playing two I-AAs.
Watson and his teammates will put the books aside Friday when they host Boise State for the WAC championship at sold-out Aloha Stadium. But it won't be long before he's back to a robust curriculum, including advanced biology, geography, botany and Hawaiian courses.
"He's designing his own major," defensive line coach Jeff Reinebold said. "Endemic horticulture."
Watson said he's technically an environmental studies major.
"Preservation of native plants and animals," is how he describes the customized program.
You might get the idea that Watson, who got married just a couple of weeks ago, is a very serious guy. But he has a lighter side too: This is the young man who cracked up his teammates with a rollicking rendition of Knute Rockne's speech from the movie "Rudy" the night before a game.
Watson was also a mastermind behind much of the whimsy attached to the Scout Bowl last month, when the veterans acted as coaches and mascots in a game featuring the younger players.
"He just has that wit about him, anything can turn into a joke around him. He's a fun guy to have around. Walrus, he always keeps us on our toes," linebacker Adam Leonard said.
"And you can see how hard he works, especially getting down in weight from last year (334 to 300 on his 6-foot-3 frame). I was shocked to see how much he changed. He's been making plays the past two years. He's one of those guys that when he comes in the game we have confidence he'll get the job done."
That was the case last Friday when Watson, the third defensive tackle, saw more action than usual when starters Mike Lafaele and Fale Laeli left the game with injuries.
Watson was in on three tackles, but one of them forced a Colin Kaepernick fourth-quarter fumble that Watson recovered, preventing the Wolf Pack from adding to their 26-25 lead. After Desmond Thomas stopped the Pack on the next series, UH took over for the game-winning drive that ended with Dan Kelly's 45-yard field goal.
Reinebold said Watson's attention to technique and quickness allowed him to make the play.
"On that particular blitz, he looks at the tackle. The tackle released, and because his eyes were in the right place he was able to chase him and knock the ball out. Because he's conscientious he put himself in position to make the play. I don't want to make it sound like he's not talented, because not many guys his size have that quickness."
Reinebold and defensive coordinator Greg McMackin don't consider Watson a backup.
"He, Mike and Fale are all solid players. They give us a great inside push. That's our starting point, those guys inside. I feel like we really have some good ones," McMackin said. "He plays smart, he plays low, very coachable, runs to the football. Knows where the ball is. Very smart player, very seldom busts."
Watson doesn't worry about not being on the field to start the game. He and the fourth tackle, Siave Seti, use the time to prepare for when they get in.
"He's a real big influence for me on the sideline with me. Seti keeps me pumped up and takes a role as a leader even though he doesn't have that much playing time. We have a connection. Every time we go in there we just try to cause havoc," Watson said.
"Everyone has a role on this team. I can't grumble about where I sit. I can control what I put out on the field. I can't control anything else. Scout guys, they don't even see the playing field. I'm just lucky and blessed to go out there and at least have some time."
Watson was born on Kauai and his family moved to the Leeward Coast of Oahu when he was in high school. He starred at Nanakuli despite never playing Pop Warner football because he was too big.
As a freshman at UH three years ago, Watson was impressive enough to earn immediate playing time. But a blood disorder and broken hand sidelined him.
"He kept on believing and doing what he was asked to do, with his weight, and technique. Conscientious," Reinebold said. "That's the thing that separates him. He's not just book smart. He's book smart and football smart. When we ask him to do something, he does it every single time.
"He's exactly what you want representing your program."