MOBILE, Ala. — The Danny Watkins story is your typical run-of-the-mill fare: Canadian former volunteer firefighter takes up the game of football on a lark, becomes very, very good at it, replaces a No. 2 overall pick at left tackle at a Big 12 school and earns an invite to college football's most prestigious all-star game at age 26. Who hasn't heard that tale before?
Watkins, who has played guard this week for the South team, would have been drawing interest here even if he didn't have one of the most unique backstories in recent draft history. The Baylor standout has had a strong start to the week, thriving in the one-on-one matchups that are such key part of the practices, which draw scores of NFL evaluators and coaches to Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
"Danny's done a great job," Bills offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris, Watkins' position coach this week, said Wednesday. "He's been like a sponge. He's absorbed everything we've tried to give him based on assignment, techniques, fundamentals, the little nuances of offensive line play. Great questions, wants to grow. He's been a plus-plus."
There was a time when Watkins' games of choice were hockey and rugby, and his primary aspiration was to be a firefighter. He became a volunteer firefighter in Kelowna, British Columbia at age 16, then worked his way up to a paid position. Seeking to further his career, Watkins, then 22, enrolled in the fire sciences program at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., in 2007. A friend, Watkins said, suggested he try out for the football team for a "fee waiver or something like that."
The new game agreed with him. He started every game in two seasons at Butte from 2007-08 at offensive tackle. He then transferred to Baylor, which was trying to replace OLT Jason Smith, the St. Louis Rams' first-round pick in the '09 draft. Once again, Watkins stepped right into the lineup, becoming a two-year starter at left tackle for the Bears.
Football, Watkins said, "took some getting used to, just the novelty of the game, but obviously I think I was able to pick it up pretty quick."
This week, his powers of adjustment are being put to the test as he learns a new position. The 6-3, 312-pound Watkins could project to guard in the NFL and has played inside all week. He has shown promise at left guard, particularly in the passing game.
"I think his pass protection is a plus," D'Alessandris said. "I think that's something he probably has most experience at, from where he's played ball, and I think his run game is improving daily."
How much more Watkins will improve figures to be one of the primary topics when NFL clubs discuss him in predraft meetings. He will turn 27 in November, an old age for a rookie.
However, South head coach Chan Gailey doesn't see Watkins' age as a drawback.
"I think you disregard that totally," he said. "I mean, you really have guys coming from BYU that are a lot in the same situation. They've been on a two-year (Mormon) mission, and they come back and are 25, 26 years old when they first start to play.
"I think you have to dismiss age in this thing and say, 'He is what he is. Let's evaluate what he is.' Don't say what he might be and when he might falter. Because he's older, but he hasn't played as much football, he may have more hits left in him. Who knows?
"I think you take a look at the guy and evaluate him for what he is, and he's done an excellent job this week for us."
D'Alessandris believes Watkins' age isn't necessarily a negative for someone trying to begin his career in the trenches.
"Well, the one thing you see is he has great strength," he said. "He's already a man. You can see that in his presence, in his overall strength."
His was to be a fireman's strength. That was the plan. Now, Watkins readies to embark on a new professional career, one he took the first steps toward less than four years ago. He has no regrets about his late introduction to football and doesn't think about what might have been if he had even more time to hone his craft.
"Last night, someone asked me, 'Would you do anything different?' he said. "And I thought about it for a second. I'd leave everything the same."