2023 Rhode Island vs Villanova

How Connor Watkins Led Villanova To The FCS Playoffs

How Connor Watkins Led Villanova To The FCS Playoffs

Continuing in Villanova's lineage of standout quarterback play, Connor Watkins has made his own mark on the way to the 2023 FCS Playoffs.

Nov 30, 2023 by Kyle Kensing
How Connor Watkins Led Villanova To The FCS Playoffs

The collection of quarterbacks to line up for Villanova in recent years includes some of the most productive and important the Football Championship Subdivision has seen: From national champion Chris Whitney, to Walter Payton Award winner John Robertson, to Daniel Smith, a record-setter at two different programs. 

Connor Watkins' outstanding 2023 season has shown flashes reminiscent of each of his Wildcat predecessor. On the way to the FCS Playoffs, Watkins has produced with dashes of those before and put it together with a style distinctly his own. 

At the conclusion of the regular season, Watkins finds himself near the top of a variety of FCS passing categories. He is fourth in passing efficiency at 163.8 and second in yards per completion at 17.41. 

Of his 19 passing touchdowns โ€” which contribute to Watkins ranking 12th nationally in points responsible for, with 162 โ€” nine went for 28 or more yards. Of those, eight went 43-plus yards: 

  • 28 to Rayjuon Pringle vs. Lehigh 
  • 58 to Jaylan Sanchez vs. North Carolina A&T 
  • 59 to Sanchez vs. North Carolina A&T 
  • 43 to Jaaron Hayek vs. Stony Brook 
  • 76 to Pringle vs. Stony Brook 
  • 68 to Pringle vs. New Hampshire 
  • 79 to Pringle vs. Towson 
  • 63 to Pringle vs. Towson 
  • 51 to Hayek vs. Delaware 

Reflective of that big-play propensity, Pringle and Sanchez rank No. 1 and No. 2 in all of FCS in yards per reception with 25.7 and 24.04. 

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"We don't throw it a ton," said Wildcats coach Mark Ferrante, alluding to Watkins' 230 attempts thus far in 2023. 

Seventy-two FCS quarterbacks attempted more passes than Watkins, but only 32 totaled more yards.

Watkins has balanced his uncanny passing efficiency with explosive ball-carrying potential. In much the same way his passing has been quality-over-quantity, Watkins has blind-sided opposing defenses with productive running as opposed to functioning as what would typically be labeled a "running quarterback." 

He had his breakout rushing performance in a Week 4 romp against Rhode Island, carrying 10 times for 113 yards with three touchdowns. The three scores matched Robertson's single-game high from the 2014 campaign, when the dual-threat playmaker won the Walter Payton as the top offensive player in FCS. 

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"Connor's a little bit bigger than John, and not nearly as fast," Ferrante said following the Rhode Island. "But he's a tough runner. He's a physical runner. He's a good-sized guy."

At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Watkins is indeed a larger physical presence than the 6-foot-1 Robertson. And to that end, Watkins excelled at using his size to his advantage as a ball-carrier throughout the 2023 regular season. 

And Watkins successfully leveraged that physicality to run through tackles for gains and absorb hits to continue delivering.  

Ahead of Villanova's 2nd Round FCS Playoffs matchup with Youngstown State, Watkins is two rushing touchdowns shy of joining Robertson, Whitney in 2010 and Smith in 2019 as Wildcat quarterbacks with a double-digit total of rushing scores. What's more, he's one passing score away from 20 for the season, putting the 20/10 milestone well within reach. 

As a team, Villanova is chasing an even bigger milestone โ€” it's first national championship since 2009. 

Whitney captained the Wildcats that season, adding a physicality no unlike Watkins this season. The signal-caller of the national championship team didn't just carry for 987 and six touchdowns in 2009; among Whitney's most memorable moments of that season was throwing a big block to spring teammate Matt Szczur in Villanova's 23-21 defeat of Montana. 

Jalen Jackson, DeeWil Barlee and TD Ayo-Durojaiye rushing for between 439 and 833 yards with 19 combined touchdowns speaks to Villanova's offensive balance, depth and the contributions of the entire offense. That extends to Watkins, who has proven himself more than willing to, and capable of, throwing a block for his teammates. 

That's not a contribution that can be quantified with an exact statistic, save maybe the Wildcats' win-loss record. 

"Connor is very similar to Whitney mentality-wise," Ferrante said. "He's a competitor, so he's going to do whatever it takes and anything he can to compete and try to make us have success, whether it's throwing the ball, whether it's running himself, or throwing a block downfield or on a reverse." 

Add up all Connor Watkins brings to Villanova, and the sum places him in company with some of the program's all-time best.