SITTING IN the student section of Doak S. Campbell Stadium last Sept. 20, Dekoda Watson was sure of one thing: He wasn't coming back to Tallahassee in 2009 for his senior season. Watson, a linebacker from Aiken, S.C., was serving a suspension for academic misconduct, and as he watched his teammates lose to Wake Forest—Florida State's third consecutive loss in the series—it was painfully clear that the Seminoles' long dominance of the ACC was over. The program that had won 12 outright or shared conference championships in 14 years (1992 through 2005) hasn't advanced to the ACC title game in three seasons.
"When I was in the student section, I saw us make so many mistakes it just hurt," Watson says. "I won't lie, I wanted to leave. But you know what? I've never won a ring, and the more I looked around [after the '08 season], the more I started to believe that this could be our year in the ACC."
Indeed, though the schedule is brutal—11 of 12 opponents played in bowls last season—the Seminoles should be the class of the ACC Atlantic. With eight starters back on offense, including junior quarterback Christian Ponder and all five linemen, the onus is on the defense to come through. The top three tacklers from 2008 have departed, so it's understandable why defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews was relieved to hear that Watson was returning after all. "Dekoda is our leader," Andrews says. "He's going to be a disruptive force."
Watson played in the last 10 games, including a 42--13 whipping of Wisconsin in the Champ Sports Bowl, and occasionally flashed playmaking skills that recalled past star Florida State linebackers Derrick Brooks and Peter Boulware. Despite being hampered by a sore hamstring and an injured left elbow that required Tommy John surgery in the off-season, the 6'2", 226-pound Watson had eight tackles for losses and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 46.
"It's time for us to bring back the glory to Florida State," says Watson, who might have been a second- or third-round pick in April's NFL draft. "That's why I came back."
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