Louisville's Watson Is a Quick Study : Football: Former Titan is making an immediate impact as starting free safety for unbeaten Cardinals.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Little did Darrius Watson know on that bleak day last year, when Cal State Fullerton announced it was shutting down its football program, that his biggest problem would be . . . Hamburgers.

Oh, things started out fine. The former All-Big West Conference cornerback studied his post-Titan options, visited the University of Hawaii and Colorado State, talked with Texas and then picked Louisville.

Which was not a bad choice, considering that Watson is now starting at free safety for the Cardinals, who are ranked 17th and off to their best start (5-0) since 1972.

But once football practice ends and Watson goes home, once he talks to his father back in Los Angeles and settles in for the night, there is one problem.

The man is hungry.

"Coming from Los Angeles County, this is a whole different atmosphere," Watson said one afternoon this week. "It's real slow out here. I mean, pretty much the whole city closes down at 12, or maybe 11.

"You can't get a burger after 11. It's closed.

"And Sunday, whooo, everything is closed. McDonald's is open, but they close at 9. It's rough. The only thing that is open late-night is Taco Bell.

"I've been doing a little Taco Bell."

Yessir, college is education and it didn't take Watson long to learn a couple of things when he arrived at Louisville for summer school in June.

"Really, it was a blessing in disguise that Fullerton's program was dropped," said Watson, a senior. "I'm learning a different style of football out here. And there's a lot more notoriety--you're talking about going 1-11, or whatever we went last year, vs. 5-0 here."

It has indeed been a head-turning climb to the top for Watson, a graduate of Torrance Bishop Montgomery High. Here was a kid who walked onto the Fullerton team in 1989, was a Big West honorable mention selection in 1991 when he was second in the conference with six interceptions, and then was named to the first team last fall.

Now, he's got three interceptions for a nationally ranked team. Louisville moved him to free safety last spring, Watson won the starting job and then held on to it during fall drills.

"I didn't think he could have done what he's done as early as he has," Louisville Coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "He's obviously a fast learner. He's playing the free safety position very, very well. I have to believe that it's partly because of him that we're where we are now. Without him, we would have had to play a freshman.

"But now, we get to play a senior who has great hands and can catch the ball as well as any of our receivers."

None of which surprises former Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy.

"I've always said there are two positions where you can't worry about immediate results: cornerback and quarterback," Murphy said. "With Darrius, if he gets burned, fine. He'd go right back out there. That's why you've got to love the kid, he's so competitive.

"He'd compete to get a drink of water."

Watson said that, above all, the reason he chose Louisville last spring was the Cardinal schedule. One peek at a lineup that included Arizona State, Pittsburgh, Texas and this week's opponent, No. 24 West Virginia, and Watson was asking where he could sign.

"When Fullerton dropped the program, I was like, 'Damn, my senior year,' " Watson said. "And in transferring, a lot of people like you to play two years (Watson had only one year of eligibility remaining). I knew I was going to go somewhere but I wanted a decent school to play at my senior year.

"It's different. I never thought I'd be playing schools like Texas and Pitt. It was the schedule that got me. All of (the opponents) were going to be ranked, I knew. This was the place I needed to be."

Plus, he gets to work with that imposing man with the snow-white hair and mustache who occupies the coach's office.

"He's all right," Watson said, laughing. "He's kind of hard to talk to, but he's all right. He's like, a legend. Since I've been playing, I can approach him whenever I want. When I first got here, I was like, ' Schnellenberger .' Now I say whatever I want."

Talking never has been a problem for Watson, who was one of the Southland's most prolific taunters and trash-talkers on the field. Although he has toned down his act a bit, a new school and new surroundings haven't knocked all the gusto out of him.

"I mean, football is an arrogant sport," Watson said. "You make big plays. If somebody makes a big play on you, he's going to be arrogant. If I make a play, hey, I worked hard to get where I am. So if you can back up your cockiness. . . ."

And hey, the guy does have three interceptions.

Yes, things have turned out fine for Darrius Watson. So the town is a little small. Well, the spotlight has gotten a little bigger.

"It's like the whole community is behind us," Watson said. "The whole town. When we're out at practice, people drive by and, beep, beep, beep. It's wild. I've never been exposed to something like this."

Now, if only he could find a late-night joint that serves what his teams at Fullerton were generally considered to be.

Meat.

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