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Rookie linebacker Nathaniel Watson ready if called on, has skills to be leader on defense

The bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and master’s in workforce education leadership prove Nathaniel Watson capitalized on the “free education” provided by Mississippi State during his six years on campus.

The crash course on strongside linebacker in the parking lot before a game against Georgia shows the intelligence translates to the football field.

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After the Browns drafted Watson in the sixth round in April, general manager Andrew Berry paid him a huge compliment by saying the team views him as a potential signal caller. Matt Brock, who was Watson’s coordinator and linebackers coach at Mississippi State, flashed back to a frenzied weekend in 2020 to explain why Watson is built for that responsibility.

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“I get a text at 4:59 A.M. as I walk into the building that says, ‘Hey, all your Sams are now popped for COVID,” Brock recently told The Chronicle-Telegram, referring to the strongside linebackers. “This is no lie, this is not an exaggeration at all, I promise. I teach Bookie Watson how to play Sam linebacker in the damn parking lot before we go play the Bulldogs at Georgia and we end up holding them to 6 yards rushing.”

The total was actually 8 yards, but the point stands. Watson had been working as an off-the-ball linebacker but made the quick switch.

“I was like, well, this is unbelievable that this kid could process that well,” Brock said.

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Watson wasn’t sure what to think when he got the early Friday morning call but didn’t bat an eye at the assignment.

“They called me, ‘Can you come up here early? We need to have a talk with you.’ I’m thinking I’m in trouble,” Watson told The Chronicle last Saturday during rookie minicamp. “I said, ‘I’m comfortable playing wherever you need me to play.’ I’ve always been a do-it guy for the team, whatever they need me to be, I’m going to do it.”

The Browns see Watson (6-foot-2, 233 pounds) as a bigger body who can play on the strong side and potentially in the middle, as well as having an immediate role on special teams. He got past a childhood stutter and is comfortable calling plays and aligning the defense.

“Luckily the Cleveland Browns got me, so I’m going to be their Swiss Army knife,” he said.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Watson introduced himself to the reporter with a strong handshake and as “Bookie.” The emphasis is on the first syllable, which rhymes with moo.

He’s a junior, and his father’s nickname was Bookie.

“I was Little Bookie growing up and then I dropped the Little and just took over Bookie and then he ended up being called Nate a lot,” Watson said. “So then throughout this draft process and coming to visit teams, they started calling me Nate. So I picked up really both of his nicknames.”

His dad died of COVID in 2021, and Watson made it clear the nickname didn’t come from taking bets.

“He wasn’t a bookie,” he said. “He was a hardworking man. I’m proud of him.”

Despite the pair of degrees, Watson lacks an answer to the question he gets “a lot.” He doesn’t know why his dad was called Bookie.

“I never asked the question. I just went with it,” he said. “I should ask my mom or my grandma on his side. I always forget.”

Regardless of the origin story, Watson’s grateful for the lasting connection.

“Most definitely,” he said. “I’m going to carry the name on through generations.”

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

Watson leaned into the tape recorder to make sure the message was received.

“I got a clean record, Cleveland,” he said. “Clean record. Clean record.”

Watson was arrested once in high school and again in college, so he and his former coaches were questioned about the incidents and his character during the draft process. At tiny Maplesville High School in Alabama, he was involved in a drag racing incident leaving the school and charged with first-degree assault and traffic violations. The car he was driving went off the road and hit a utility pole, and the passenger, a football teammate, suffered injuries.

Watson pleaded guilty to traffic charges, but if anything came from the assault charge, it’s confidential because he was a minor at the time, according to a clerk with the Chilton County court.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not a big fan of how that was handled,” said Brent Hubbert, Watson’s high school coach in the town of 700. “I went downtown and said my piece and had some things to say with a couple of people in charge.

“It was nothing malicious, intent or anything. And we had some people try to throw this guy completely away, and I lost some respect for the people and lost my cool on some people.”

In 2023 at Mississippi State Watson was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. He completed a program that resolved the situation and the incident was wiped from his record.

He said he learned a valuable lesson.

“Really how fast anything can happen in that moment,” he said. “So really just being more precautious, taking care of things away from the organization. Because you represent yourself and you represent the organization now and you represent the NFL logo.”

His former coaches rave about his character.

“I’ve got a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, and he was at my house all the time and I would’ve let him babysit my kids,” Brock said. “That’s how much I trust that young man.”

BIG MEN DO CRY

Watson’s resume is a reason to believe he could become a factor on a defense that was ranked No. 1 last year. He was Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference last season, racking up 137 tackles, including 13 for loss, with 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. He had 113 tackles, 12 for loss, and six sacks in 2022.

He considers himself a thumper, and the Browns do, too.

“He’s a very physical player,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “We think he fits what we do.”

Linebackers Watson’s size may be going out of style, but he believes it sets him up for success with the Browns.

“I really think it helped me a lot coming into the NFL, especially with the O-linemen, they big, nasty, and you got the running backs, big, powerful,” he said.

Of course, he must be able to move.

“Slow feet don’t eat,” he said.

Brock attributed the incredible production at college football’s highest level to the breadth of Watson’s skill set.

“He can run, he has good long speed, solid short-area quickness, and he is just a guy that’s big and strong and physical, and so he is able to get off blocks,” Brock said. “And when he did arrive, rarely did he miss tackles. But the thing to me that obviously sets him apart from a lot of guys, just how intelligent he is.

“His ability to see the entire field is something you don’t see as much anymore. He’s got an old-school mentality when it comes to understanding all levels of defense. He enjoys being the alpha dog. He enjoys being the lead communicator. He’s confident in himself.”

Watson, who’s friends with Browns cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. after years together with the Bulldogs, has two uncles who played in the NFL. Harold Morrow and Tommie Agee offered feedback and advice throughout the draft process but couldn’t prepare him for the tears that came when the Browns called his name.

“I’m just not an emotional guy,” Watson said. “I mostly channel my emotions in and relay it on the football field throughout smacking somebody. So I really wasn’t supposed to let the emotion out, but I was glad I let it out with my family. Had all my family and close friends there with me. So it really was just a blessing to have them around and they probably saw me at my (most) vulnerable, but they won’t see it again.”

The women in his life were the reason for the emotion.

“So really having my mom, grandma and sister there, and my girl there, seeing them cry, it just got heavy on me,” Watson said.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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