Whitley: 'Project Des' underway for Florida football program

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Florida's spring practice has wrapped up, and one number generated more curiosity, conversation, anticipation and speculation than any other:

432.

That's what the scale showed when freshman Desmond Watson stepped on it. Visions of dominant, space-eating defensive tackles like William "The Refrigerator" Perry started dancing in fans' heads.

The Fridge was a mere 330 pounds. Watson is an entirely different appliance.

The early enrollee might be the heaviest player in Division 1 history, which could be good or not so good. Good if he drops down to a svelte 375 or so and harnesses some crazy skills for a guy that size. Not so good if the Project Des doesn't pan out.

"Our first goal is for him to lead a healthy lifestyle," Florida strength coach Nick Savage said.

Project Des is a nutrition and conditioning program that could create a monster of a football player. Success will ultimately depend on the player, which is where another number comes in:

21.

Those are the strange digits on Watson's jersey. Strange because Deion Sanders wore No. 21. Cris Collinsworth wore 21.

Florida freshman defensive lineman Desmond Watson during a drill at the Sanders football practice fields on campus.

More on Gators football:New UF secondary coaches molding young group, leaning on Dean, Elam

GatorSports Podcast:Gators get in work during just concluded spring football practice

Why Desmond Watson wears No. 21

Defensive tackles are not supposed to wear flashy numbers like 21.

Watson's mother wore it when she played basketball. Her son wears it partially in her honor, but primarily for his 9-year-old brother, Dyson. He suffered a stroke four years ago that permanently altered his life.

Desmond Watson with his younger brother Dyson.

"He can't run. He can't walk. He can't talk," said Deonzia Woullard, the boys' mother. "He's on a feeding tube, but he still has a whole personality."

Dyson loves to watch football, especially when his big brother's playing it.'

Did we say big?

With all due respect to Steve Spurrier, there's probably never been a bigger man on campus. But be not deceived by the digits 4-3-2.

"People see that number and think 'My 600-lb. Life,'" said Evan Davis, Watson's coach at Armwood High.

Like Watson, the stars of that show hope to get in better shape. But it's doubtful any of them are weight-room legends for their ability to squat hundreds of pounds.

"His ass was six inches off the floor," Davis said. "He has flexibility and hip movement you don't see in a guy that size. He's a stupid athlete for how big he is."

Project Des is designed to excavate that athlete. What's the first goal?

"We'd like to get him under 400 pounds," Savage said.

Coaches don't know what Watson's ideal playing weight will be. His thighs are bigger than the average lineman was when Spurrier was in school. His rear end could qualify for its own zip code.

But he's not that fat, he's quite athletic

The thing is, he's not that fat.

"His dad always said, 'How in the world did I get a son shaped like his mom?'" Woullard said.

His father is 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds. His mother weighs about 250, which she attributes to COVID-19 inactivity and having six kids.

Desmond was actually the smallest of her children at birth — 8 pounds, 1 ounce. The genetics quickly kicked in and he became Des the Giant of pee-wee football.

Woullard remembers one game where an opposing player ended up in her son's arms. Desmond lifted the kid up and the crowd yelled, "Nooo, Des!"

"They thought he was going to slam him down," she said. "But he laid him down like a baby in a cradle."

Watson wore No. 99 until four years ago. His brother was a healthy 5-year-old. There were no warnings he was about to suffer a stroke that would relegate him to life in a wheelchair.

Florida doesn't allow players to talk to the media until they've played, but you can imagine the impact Dyson's stroke had.

"You see your little brother being a normal kid," Woullard said. "Then he's trapped in a body that doesn't work."

She gave her son a speech:

"Be his arms. Be his legs. They can't move the way he wants them to. Let him do that through you."

The biggest obstacle Watson had in high school was finding size 17 shoes and a pair of sweatpants that would fit.

"We tried to get him in some triple XLs," Davis said. "They wouldn't even go over his thighs."

Finding gear isn't a problem at Florida, but the game is certainly more of a challenge. There was scrimmage video of Watson collapsing the offensive line, but there's no guarantee Project Des will produce a football monster.

"That's up to him," Savage said. "But there's enough there to be a dominant football player."

More:Gators notebook: Turner talks grad two transfers, Florida's young DL

What Florida has right now is a freshman with one of the more unique football chassis anyone's ever seen. It's too early to tell if there's a motor to match, though there is a clue.

Whitley

It's a tattoo that stretches down Watson's left forearm. It says "Dyson 21."

The number when he steps on the scale will always get the most attention. But if Watson truly makes it big, No. 21 is what will really have counted.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley