TAMPA, Fla. -- South Carolina's Derek Watson wouldn't talk to anyone about the Outback Bowl a year ago.
The suspended running back wanted to be alone in his hometown of Williamston, S.C., while his teammates tromped Ohio State 24-7 here last New Year's Day.
Now, a refreshed and more mature Watson seems ready for whatever role he'll play this time for No. 14 South Carolina (8-3) against the 22nd-ranked Buckeyes (7-4) in the Outback Bowl.
"I'm not looking to do something special to show people I'm here," Watson says. "This is an exciting time. I had heard about this experience and I wanted to feel it for myself."
Watson, South Carolina's junior tailback, looked like he would cap one of the team's most special seasons in 2000 with an outstanding bowl performance at the Outback. Instead, Watson was suspended by coach Lou Holtz for totaling teammate Teddy Crawford's car.
Just like that, 1,066 yards and 11 touchdowns were taken away from the Gamecocks' attack. Watson's absence, though, set the stage for Ryan Brewer - a former Ohio "Mr. Football" - to rush for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
Brewer also had three catches for 92 yards and a touchdown and was named the Outback's MVP.
All Watson could do was watch on TV. He had tired of answering questions from friends and relatives.
He was angry at Holtz at first, but after the game fully understood his mistakes and apologized to teammates when they returned.
"I was a big part of the offense" last year, Watson said. "A big part of the team. To leave the guys on the island, leave them stranded like I did last year ... It hurt me inside to let myself down. But even more it hurt me that I let about 70 other guys down by not doing what's right."
After a second summer-long suspension for his arrest for hitting a woman - Watson was reinstated in August and accepted into a pretrial intervention program two months later - Watson came back to the team he loved with Holtz's blessing.
"He's done everything we asked him to do," Holtz said.
Watson seemed a cinch to become the first Gamecock with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since George Rogers in 1979-80. But Watson had only 591 yards and five touchdowns.
Holtz has continually praised Watson's blocking and pass-catching skills this year and says the problem this year is the team's scheme to stop Watson.
Many Gamecocks think Watson's ready for a breakout game.
"Derek brings a lot to the table," South Carolina quarterback Phil Petty said. "He's explosive, he's a great player, a great talent. He can really do a lot of things for you. So I know he's going to be ready to play."
Ohio State safety Donnie Nickey said his team, too, keyed on stopping Watson last year. Perhaps, Nickey said, when Watson was suspended, the Buckeyes didn't worry about South Carolina's running game so much. "That was a mistake," Nickey said. "We don't plan on making it again."
Watson's maturity has shown more often this season. He spent part of the summer at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in North Carolina, discussing with former Alabama star Shaun Alexander how to conduct one's self as a university representative.
When football season ended, Watson spoke with Holtz and basketball coach Dave Odom about joining that team to help bring some organized structure to his off-season.
Watson's aware of what could await him in Tampa. "I'm real nervous at this point," he said. "I've got guys saying, 'Let's go here, let's go there.' I don't want to make the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Still, some teammates couldn't resist a few friendly jabs after South Carolina finished its season with a 20-15 win against Clemson and faced about six weeks off before the bowl.
Receiver Brian Scott joked that he told Watson to stay away from cars.
Watson doesn't mind. He's ready to perform. "Right now, I'm just going to prove to those guys that I've come down here to play a football game, not to have fun," he said.
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