Now fifth-year seniors, Kylan Watkins (left) and Calvin Austin III are determined to strongly finish their collegiate careers during the upcoming football season. (Photos: Terry Davis/TSD Archives)

by Liaudwin Seaberry Jr. —

As former walk-ons for the University of Memphis football team, wide receiver Calvin Austin III and running back Kylan Watkins have experienced criticism.

Each was viewed as an underdog due to their size. Throughout their careers, both put in the work to rise above the adverse situations they experienced as freshmen at Memphis.

Now fifth-year seniors, Watkins and Austin possess the determination to strongly finish their collegiate careers during the upcoming football season. 

Their partnership, however, extends beyond the football field. Both have known one another from a very young age. As roommates for the past two and a half years, their bond has grown exponentially. 

As a result, they learned to push each other to be among the best, whether on the practice field or in just about anything.

“As walk-ons, it was a grind to get where we needed to be,” Austin said. “Nothing was given to us, which makes everything even better for us because that taught us everything worth having is earned.”

Watkins and Austin were star athletes at their respective high schools. Austin showcased his talents at Harding Academy of Memphis and Watkins excelled at Whitehaven High School. 

Their on-field exploits put them in rare company at the high-school level, but when they looked to play at the next level, Memphis initially did not offer either player a scholarship. 

Watkins committed to the University of Tennessee at Martin after his senior year, but ultimately realized that his heart was in Memphis.

The Tigers are expecting a lot from Kylan Watkins, “whether it be running the ball or catching it out of the backfield.” (Photo: Terry Davis/TSD Archives)

As a walk-on to the football team for the 2018-19 season, Watkins never looked at that distinction as a negative.

“There were times that it was really difficult, but being a walk-on made me hungrier to push myself even harder than I had before,” Watkins said.

“I realized that everything I earned would not be given to me, and that I would have to put in even more work to get where I wanted to be.”

He redshirted his first year and endured several injuries. 

Playing behind future NFL running backs Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard, Watkins did his best to soak in the knowledge.

Hard work yielded a football scholarship just before the beginning of the 2019-20 season, and he rushed for almost 400 yards in limited action. Last season, he amassed almost 600 yards of total offense, scoring two touchdowns. 

Calling Watkins “one of the smartest players on the team,” Tigers wide receivers coach David Glidden said, “… it’s good to see him back healthy after two years of being injured. …

“He’s going to do a lot for us this season, whether it be running the ball or catching it out of the backfield.”

Named to several preseason watchlists, Calvin Austin III is focused on helping the Tigers win another conference championship. (Photo: Terry Davis/TSD Archives)

Austin entered the collegiate ranks doubling as a track athlete and football player. While track came easy to him at the collegiate level, it took a while for him to settle onto the football field. 

That is until the 2020-21 season, Austin’s redshirt junior year. 

He became the number-one receiving option for the Tigers, hauling in 63 passes for more than 1,000 yards, and scoring 11 touchdowns.

He earned First-Team All-AAC honors, which thrust a ton of expectations on him and his team heading into the upcoming season. 

Austin considered entering the 2021 NFL draft, but ultimately decided to return to the Tigers. 

“Calvin has gotten better every year he’s been here, and I think that we have yet to see the best of him, even after his season last year,” Glidden said.

While Austin appreciates being named to several preseason watchlists, including one for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the best wide receiver in college football, he acknowledged that the Tigers winning another conference championship serves as the only true award that matters.

“It’s good to hear about what we can do, but going out on the field and taking care of our business remains the goal.”

Given the expectations to perform at a high level this season, both Austin and Watkins know they have to put in the work to succeed on the field. 

“All the times we’ve run routes after practice and lifted weights during the offseason will pay off this year,” Watkins said confidently.

“Both Calvin and I have put in the work to get where we want to be, and I am excited to be ready to go at full speed for this year.”