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Argos' Watkins proving to be versatile performer for defence

The Canadian Press

10/1/2013 6:31:51 PM

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -- He's the CFL's top pass defender and one of its most honest.

Unlike many players who say they're unaware of their own stats, Toronto Argonauts cornerback Pat Watkins not only knows he has a CFL-high five interceptions, but readily admits he wants to end the season as its No. 1 ballhawk.

"Yeah, I found out I'm leading the league in interceptions," Watkins said following practice Tuesday. "That's something I'm going to continue to strive for and try to lead the league as well as set a personal best as far as the CFL goes."

Watkins, 30, is also aware of how many more interceptions he needs to make 2013 a career campaign.

"Last year I had five," Watkins said. "It's easy when you only have five . . . I can count that on one hand.

"It's one of those things that no matter what happens whether it's good or bad, positive or negative I'm going to continue to strive to be the best I can be personally as an athlete, football player and a coach's player."

The six-foot-five, 205-pound Watkins has been very good since joining the Argos last season. A CFL all-star in 2012, Watkins' five picks left him tied with safety Jordan Younger -- who retired prior to this season -- for most on the team and just one behind league-leader Joe Burnett of the Edmonton Eskimos.

Watkins had four interceptions in the NFL with Dallas (2006-09) and San Diego (2010) before coming to Toronto. He also added 67 tackles and two fumble recoveries last year and through 13 games has 30 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries.

Watkins was a one-man show Sunday, registering two tackles, two interceptions, a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery as Toronto rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Edmonton 34-22. With that, the Argos (9-4, first in East Division) became the first CFL team ever to win all four games of a four-game road trip.

"I still haven't watched the defensive film but it was impressive enough watching on the sidelines to know Pat was the player of the game," Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said. "Pat's our leader in the secondary now and we need him to make those plays.

"He's one of our defensive captains and I think he's kind of feeling like he needs to be accountable for what's going on back there."

Watkins watched Toronto's 35-22 win over Calgary in the 100th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre last November because of a foot injury. With eight starters from that defence having moved on, the Argos are counting heavily on Watkins and linebackers Robert McCune and Marcus Ball to lead this year's young unit.

"He has grown as a leader," Milanovich said of Watkins. "I think those three guys (Watkins, Ball and McCune) in particular have and (former B.C. defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell) has done a great job as well.

"When the opportunity presents itself guys will step up and I think that's what has happened. It took a little while but I think they're going in the right direction."

Watkins certainly is with three interceptions in Toronto's last two games. But defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones said Watkins' versatility gives him plenty of options in drawing up the weekly gameplan.

"He does a great job in our scheme, he does what we ask him to do," Jones said. "We play a lot of zone coverage, we put him in different matchups where he's having to defend in the slot and at corner."

Watkins has the size and speed to excel in one-on-one coverage on the outside at cornerback. But the former Florida State star also has the athleticism to defend against slotbacks who have the advantage of a running start at the snap of the ball.

"A lot of guys I've had in the past didn't have the ability to get out on the slot, it's something that's learned," Jones said. "When you can cover that motion and do go back to being a stationary guy (at cornerback), it's a little simpler."

When a cornerback is dominant in both pass and run defence, has the versatility to effectively cover any receiver and continually makes big plays, he's often dubbed a "shutdown corner." But it's not a title Watkins readily wants or is chasing.

"I don't try to put that pressure on myself," he said. "I just try to compete to the best of my ability, play within the scheme of the defence and do what the coaches ask me.

"I can't say I'm a shutdown corner. I'm just going to play the best I can and continue to improve."

It seems opposing quarterbacks have noticed as Watkins says he hasn't seen as many passes this year as he did in 2012. But that hasn't forced him to change his mindset when he steps on to the football field.

"In the back of my mind I feel every ball is coming my way," he said. "So I have to be prepared and act like all the balls are coming my way."

Watkins said he isn't playing with a chip on his shoulder or the feeling he has something to prove because he didn't suit up in last year's Grey Cup. He's more than content with his contribution to helping Toronto earn its first CFL title since '04.

"We won and that's what a team does, a team isn't about one player," he said. "It's a gratifying feeling to know even with me down the team continued to play on and we won.

"I can't hold my head about that, I did the best I could to get us there and the team finished it off. I was on the sidelines cheering because I knew we were going to party afterwards and I didn't want to miss it."

NOTES -- Argos quarterback Ricky Ray practised Tuesday and looked good throwing the football. Milanovich said Ray continues to recover from a shoulder injury but couldn't provide an update as to when he might resume playing. Receiver Chad Owens (ribs) also practised and Milanovich said the CFL's 2012 outstanding player is a "maybe" for Friday night's home game against Hamilton.