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Nathaniel Watson shifts positions to become Browns rookie

BEREA – Cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. knows exactly what kind of journey sixth-round rookie linebacker Nathaniel Watson has been on. Emerson brought it himself.

It’s not just that Emerson, like Watson, played college football at Mississippi State University. Or that the two are now teammates again with the Cleveland Browns.

Emerson and Watson both have something else in common. Neither thought in high school that defense would be their path to the NFL.

For Emerson, it wasn’t until his freshman year at Pine Forest High School in Pensacola, Florida, that the longtime wide receiver finally made the transition. It came after he finally gave in to the wishes of his head coach, Jason McDonald.

“In my experience, I always played offense and my varsity coach in high school always wanted me to play corner because my brother (Martel) was a good cornerback, but I never wanted to play,” Emerson told the Beacon Journal in an exclusive job interview last week. “He ended up letting me play and I was glad he did. I just excelled at it and took it for what it was and I started getting offers. So I mean, sometimes coaches know better than you.”

For Watson, that coach wasn’t his high school coach in Maplewood, Alabama. Instead, it was two of the college coaches who came to recruit the high school quarterback to make good on his commitment to Mississippi State.

When Watson was initially recruited to Starkville, it was by Dan Mullen, who would keep him on offense. However, when Mullen left for the University of Florida in 2018, Joe Moorhead was hired to replace him and took over recruiting.

Then-Moorhead linebacker coach Tem Lukabu had spent time coaching in the NFL with both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and, in the two years prior to coming to Starkville, the San Francisco 49ers. It was Lukabu who was helped to do what Watson thought would be nearly impossible growing up.

“At first it was like, I want to catch touchdowns,” Watson told the Beacon Journal during the Browns’ rookie minicamp on May 10. “I want to be the face of the offense, all that. … Coach Lukabu, he obviously played in the league, coached in the league, coached high-profile linebackers. I don’t know, all I know is he told me I could make a lot of money could earn at linebacker. That’s all I need to hear.”

Watson enrolled at Mississippi State in 2018, a year before Emerson arrived. Unlike the Pensacola cornerback, the Alabama native — whose birthday is 26 days earlier than Emerson’s — didn’t make an immediate impact on the field for the Bulldogs, playing just two games in his true freshman season.

Moorhead would be fired after the 2019 season despite leading Mississippi State to back-to-back bowl appearances. So he never really got to see the fruits of Watson’s defensive conversion.

Before Watson arrived on campus, however, the current University of Akron coach had a vision of what kind of player he could become in time.

“We knew he had the physical tools to have the right approach and work ethic and all those things off the field,” Moorhead told the Beacon Journal in late April. “I mean, I certainly didn’t expect that we knew this would happen. We knew it wouldn’t be the first year. We knew he could contribute a little bit in the second year. But in terms of the long-term projection: “We thought this is a guy who looks like he could be a very productive SEC linebacker and have a chance to play at the next level.”

Watson eventually became just that during his six years in the city affectionately known as StarkVegas. He would lead the SEC in tackles and sacks in his final season, continuing Mississippi State’s linebacking legacy with teammates like Willie Gay Jr., Errol Thompson and Leo Lewis.

That earned Watson a spot in the Senior Bowl, back in his home state of Alabama. There he underwent the final transition, only it was not from attack to defense, but from one defense to another.

Mississippi State has run a 3-3-5 since 2020, which has earned a reputation among the SEC and college football for both the players executing the scheme and the relative uniqueness of the scheme itself. But now with the Browns, under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, he is running a more traditional scheme, which has its roots and foundation in a 4-3 front.

While in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, Watson started learning that defense because the defensive coordinator for his team was Browns safety Ephraim Banda. That’s why he’ll feel much more comfortable once he lands in Cleveland.

“It’s definitely different,” Watson said. “The 3-3-5 and then 4-3, it’s completely different. But obviously I played defense in the Senior Bowl because Coach Eph was DC, so I already played it. So I already knew half the defense, but it really wasn’t a transition. When you’re a ball player, you play in any defense and that’s me.”

Chris Easterling can be reached at [email protected]. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/browns. Follow him on X at @ceasterlingABJ

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