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Cameron Watkins brings 'Bullyball', leadership to Illinois secondary

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Illinois defensive back Cameron Watkins (31) and linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips defend a pass intended for Kent State’s Mike Carrigan on Saturday. Watkins is bringing a much-needed physical presence to the Illini secondary.

CHAMPAIGN — Physical exhaustion. Wearing the opponent down. Hitting them hard. Imposing your will.

That's the type of football Illinois redshirt junior defensive back Cameron Watkins likes.

The style has been on his mind since he arrived in Champaign from Pearl-Cohn High School in Nashville, Tenn., in 2015.

“I take pride in being a physical player," Watkins said. "Coming from where I’m from at Pearl-Cohn High School, we call it ‘Bullyball’ — going out there and making sure we bully the opponent the best we can."

So what is it?

“Bullyball is trying to be the most physical player on the field or the most physical team on the field," Watkins said. "Just make sure that whenever we're in position to make a tackle or make a hit or make a block that we’re making that block and that we’re physically punishing the other team."

Not everyone likes to hit like Watkins does, but he's found a few like-minded players in the Illinois secondary.

Stanley Green has been known to pop the pads. Freshmen Delano Ware and Sydney Brown got in on the hard-hitting fun in their first game on Saturday.

In Saturday's win over Kent State, Watkins had 10 tackles and one for a loss in the process of shepherding in a group of young defensive backs like Ware, Brown, Jartavius Martin and Dylan Wyatt.

"He’s a tough football player," head coach Lovie Smith said. "You saw that. He’s had a little hand injury which hasn’t allowed him to catch the ball as well. He didn't have the opportunity to make a lot of interceptions in the passing game that way, but I thought his tackling was outstanding."

Watkins is the elder statesman of the secondary, which desperately needed a leader in the wake of indefinite suspensions to starters Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs, and the absence of cornerback Tony Adams, who did not play on Saturday because of an injury.

When Watkins was a freshman, he had Jaylen Dunlap to help him adjust to college football. It's Watkins' turn to pay it forward.

“Having someone to be able to take them under their wing, like Jaylen did for me and I’m trying to do for these young guys, is huge," Watkins said. "Coming into college, you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know the game and you don’t know the environment and how things are going to work out. Having somebody who knows, who can help you and coach you up to those things, is huge."

In the first half of Saturday's game, there were growing pains.

Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett sliced through the Illinois defense. He found receivers who were wide open after blown coverages. Barrett rushed down the throat of the Illinois defense, moving the chains at the most inopportune times for the Illini.

But the second half was different.

The defense bent and broke on one drive, but held sturdy on the other five defensive possessions of the second half, including coming up with two interceptions.

It gave the defense momentum, and encouragement.

“It speaks to the strength of this team this year,"Watkins said. "I feel like last year, we don’t pull that game out. This year we’ve got a little bit more grit. We’re a little more into it."

There were moments that the tone got somewhat stern with young players on Saturday. But at the same time, he knew his teammates were young, and young players make mistakes.

Opponents don't care that the Illinois secondary is young. In fact, they lick their chops at the thought of picking apart freshmen.

Watkins encouraged his teammates to lock in and make sure they knew their assignments.

No freshman maxed out his potential on Saturday, but they took a step forward.

“You kind of got a chance to see them grow up during the course of the game," defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "Guys are competing and fighting hard. At this level there’s a lot to remember, but you could see those guys competing and playing hard. They’re all really good players with really high ceilings."

Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25


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