The first thing you find out about Zach Watkins is he gets evasive when quizzed about his individual success on the football field.

The first thing you find out about Zach Watkins is he gets evasive when quizzed about his individual success on the football field.
Watkins, Washburn University’s star senior inside linebacker, gets questions nearly every day concerning his progression up the school’s record chart for career tackles. Sports writers, family members and curious fans all want to know.
“They want me to speculate on it, talk about it, all those things,” said Watkins, a Truman High School graduate. “But, honestly, it’s not something at the top of my mind that I need to work for. I don’t check stats or stuff like that.”
Like it or not, Watkins had to address the tackle record more than ever this past week. Such is life when you’re just eight tackles from becoming Washburn’s all-time leader for takedowns in a career.
“Some coach in an interview said something, maybe it was my sophomore year, that ‘if he stays healthy, he has a chance’,” recalled Watkins, when pressured to elaborate a bit about the mark. “But that’s not something I sat around dreaming about doing. My drive is to win every week.
“It’s always about the team. It’s been that way this season, it’s been that way since I’ve been here, and it will be that way until my career is over.”
So there. But when his playing days at Washburn are over, he will have started every game in his college career and in today’s final regular-season home game against Truman State, probably midway through the third quarter, Watkins will haul down an opposing ball carrier for a record 460th time.
Not bad for a guy who would be a perfect poster child for the adage about toil leading to glory. Lightly recruited after a solid high school career at Truman – even Washburn didn’t pony up a scholarship right away – Watkins is reaping the rewards of his labor.
Watkins, at 6-feet and 235 pounds, has a great ability to keep his legs clean and carry his pads which, combined with his functional strength and instincts, have made him one of the best players in Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. He averages a league-best 10 tackles per game as Washburn is 6-3 in what is considered one of NCAA Division II’s toughest football conferences.
He’s been a team captain, voted on by his peers, the past three years and a season ago he was tabbed as Washburn’s most valuable player and was named second-team All-America by Football Gazette. This season, made him a second team preseason All-America pick.
“He knows what he’s doing and he knows what everybody else on the defense is supposed to be doing,” said Cooper Harris, his linebackers coach. “If he’s not on the field we’re not as good a defensive unit as we are with him on the field.”
Although he spent the 2005 football season as a redshirt walk-on, it didn’t take Washburn’s coaches very long to see they had lucked into somebody pretty special.
“What stood out right away was his ability to understand what we asked our linebackers to do,” Harris said. “By the time we got through spring ball (in ‘06) I knew he was going to be a starter for us. And after spring ball he was on scholarship.”
Rather than spend his redshirt year sulking and going through the motions, Watkins gleaned as much knowledge as he could from his older teammates, especially linebacker Grant Gould, whose tackle record he’ll likely make obsolete today.
They encouraged Watkins to immerse himself in Washburn’s defensive playbook, watch film and do all the things necessary to become bigger, faster, stronger. He also made himself valuable by honing the long-snapper skills he’d developed in high school.
“Coach Harris said the best way to ‘get on the bus,’ which means to be on the traveling team, is to make an impact on special teams,” Watkins said. “So I thought I could use my snapping abilities and got locked into it.
“I’ve snapped every game for punts since I was a redshirt freshman and I started handling field goal snaps the past couple (years).”
While his football resume is loaded – his accomplishments and photos are all over the Washburn media guide – the stud linebacker has been equally impressive in the classroom where he sports a 3.55 grade point average as a finance management major.
Among his many schoolwork accolades are ESPN The Magazine second team academic All-America honors along with being Washburn’s nominee for the Ken B. Jones Award as the MIAA’s student athlete of the year. The School of Business awarded him its Dale Marcoux Leadership Scholarship – twice.
Those smarts come in handy when you’re the guy responsible for making sure, on every play, that every defensive player is in the right spot. He’s also quick to shove all of his personal success toward those same teammates.
“This defense is designed for the linebackers to make tackles,” Watkins said. “The defensive linemen have to be unselfish and take up blocks, so if it wasn’t for them it would not even be a possibility for me to be in this situation. My teammates deserve all the credit and I’m happy to give it to them.”
His core values come from a stable and supportive family, namely his parents Bruce and Jayme Watkins.
“My mom and dad told me from an early age that sports won’t always be there, but your intelligence will,” he said. “It’s something that I took to heart in high school, maybe a little before then, that to not only put in work in the weight room or on the field, but also in the classroom.”
It’s the same drive and determination that Truman High football coach Craig Lewis was proud to have been around.
“He made plays that physically, because of his speed, he shouldn’t be making,” Lewis said. “But because he was so smart, so football smart, and so wanting to be there, he would make plays against some of the best kids in the conference in the backfield, and it was because he reacted so fast.
“And he’s continued to do that in college.”
Watkins hopes for an opportunity to take his drive and work ethic to the next level, but knows that’s a long shot and a long way off.
Right now, his attention is fixed squarely on helping Washburn finish off its last two games with victories to reach 8-3 and hopefully earn a spot in the Division II playoffs. Washburn fell 22-19 in overtime last Saturday to third-ranked Northwest Missouri.
“We played well against a great team but there are no moral victories and I and the other seniors stressed that to the rest of the team,” said Watkins, who had his season-high 16 tackles in an inspired effort by the Washburn defense.
“We played well and felt like we dominated the game defensively, but we had fewer points than them and that results in a loss.”
The close setback dropped the Ichabods from fifth to eighth in the Super Regional Four ratings. Since only the top six teams in the region advance to the playoffs, they need to close out strong and score some help down the stretch.
“We didn’t want anything less than perfection at practice all year and we don’t want anything less than perfection now,” Watkins said. “We’re looking forward to it.”