Armani Watts has heard the old adage that it’s not always a good thing when your safety is the leading tackler on the team.
He’s not having any of it.
“Some teams have safeties lead in tackles because of the way the run game fits up, and our run fits are set up for the linebackers to fill gaps and make it bounce outside, and that’s where we need to fit,” Watts said. “Some say you want your linebackers to lead in tackles, but it depends on the scheme of the defense.”
The sophomore safety has been the Aggies’ top tackler all season, but even he didn’t expect to register 20 tackles in Texas A&M’s 23-3 loss at Ole Miss last Saturday. He had 10 more than the next highest Aggie — nickel back Donovan Wilson — and seven more than all the linebackers combined.
“That’s not a regular night for me,” Watts said. “I didn’t know how many tackles I had until the end of the game. I just felt like I was making the plays I needed to make, just plugging holes and being where I needed to be.”
Watts also forced and recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass and broke up another. All that and he didn’t get the Southeastern Conference’s defensive player of the week award. That honor went to his opposite number, Ole Miss safety Trae Elston, who had five pass breakups and three tackles, one for a loss.
“I wasn’t really surprised because I don’t really expect to get awards, so it wasn’t a shock to me,” Watts said. “I’m not really that upset about it. The team has to win, too.”
Watts has played a huge part in the Aggies’ successes this season. He leads the team in tackles this season with 69 — 23 more than strong safety Justin Evans (who is second on the list) and just two fewer than starting linebackers A.J. Hilliard and Shaan Washington have combined.
A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis praises Watts’ efforts, but he’s also among those that believe his safety shouldn’t have to do so much.
“He played well for us ... both our safeties have,” Chavis said. “I was glad to look at the stat sheet and see he made those plays, but in my [meeting] room, I challenged [the linebackers] to make plays. We have to keep the ball off our safeties. Hopefully, he won’t have to make that many tackles in another game, but I’m proud of what he did.”
Other Aggies took notice of Watts’ 20-tackle performance.
“As a teammate I admire that, the energy and the passion he plays with,” senior cornerback Brandon Williams said. “To have a game like that, I admire that, not only from a defensive standpoint but just as a player to see a guy go out there and play his heart out and to come up with a game like that. Even though we got the L, he still had a marvelous game.”
Watts’ motor has been running hard since he arrived at A&M after making the Class 4A all-state team at North Forney. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder led the team in interceptions with three and pass breakups with 10 as a true freshman last season. He also had 59 tackles, recording at least one in all 13 games. He also started eight games that year, earning a starting safety spot the first week and staying there for six games before giving way to senior Floyd Raven Sr. Watts returned to the starting lineup for the final regular-season game and the bowl game against West Virginia, logging three tackles and two pass breakups in the 45-37 victory.
Watts credits Chavis and a new attitude for the defense improving in the national rankings — from 102nd last season to 64th this year in total defense.
“He brought an excitement and you can tell that he loves us and cares for us and we have fun out there,” Watts said. “We just have a chip on our shoulder from last year, and we want to be the best we can be. Eventually we want to be the best in the country.”
Individually, Watts says he’s capable of 20-tackle games because of his work in the film room combined with his work in the weight room with Larry Jackson, director of football sports performance.
No matter how prepared a player is, 20 tackles and a handful of other key plays can still take its toll.
“I was real sore the next day and didn’t really want to get out of the bed,” Watts said.