ALAMEDA — Todd Watkins first tried out for the Raiders in 2004, when he was a junior at Brigham Young. Not that Watkins or the Raiders knew it at the time, though.
It came during a game against USC, when current Raiders coach Lane Kiffin was the co-offensive coordinator of the Trojans. Watkins' defining moment came on a pass play in which he blew past a USC cornerback, caught a long pass and turned it into a touchdown.
"He was all over the field, beat us on a deep ball," Kiffin recalled. "It was the only deep ball we gave up all year."
Kiffin filed away the information, recalled it last year when he was hired by the Raiders and tracked down Watkins for a closer inspection. Things didn't work out for Watkins last season. However, he made the most of his opportunity this time around and earned a spot on Oakland's 53-man, opening-day roster.
Watkins, 25, transferred from Norfolk State to BYU in 2004. He amassed 92 receptions for 1,720 yards and 15 TDs in two seasons.
That earned him a seventh-round selection in the 2006 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals. Yet, there wasn't much Watkins could do about cracking a receiving corps that included Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson.
After working out for the Raiders in August 2007 but not signing with them, Watkins went to the Atlanta Falcons and landed on their practice squad.
"I had a good chance in Atlanta," Watkins said, "but the situation just wasn't right with the coaching change. It was a mess out there."
Finally, Watkins caught a break. He signed with the Raiders in the offseason on the strength of his first impression with Kiffin four years ago and wasted little time working his way up the depth chart.
A season-ending knee injury to projected starter Drew Carter solidified Watkins' roster spot and increased his chances of playing from the outset, perhaps as the No. 3 receiver behind starters Javon Walker and Ronald Curry.
"He has done a great job working really hard," Kiffin said. "He's one of those guys that doesn't look great when you go to individual (drills), but he just finds ways to make plays."
Kiffin has made similar remarks about Watkins since he first practiced in April. Time and again, Watkins ran past a defender and under a long pass, much as he did against USC.
Carter's impressive speed made him the logical option on long-pass routes this season. Now, someone needs to fill that void. So far, Watkins has fared better than his receiving mates, including Curry and Walker.
Watkins used to worry about how he stacked up against the competition. An offseason meeting with receivers coach James Lofton eased his mind.
Lofton went around the room and asked Watkins and the other receivers if they were competing against each other. Several of the receivers replied in the affirmative.
"He's like, 'No, you're competing with yourself. You're putting yourself out there. You're not competing with anyone else in this room. You're out there to do your best and you're competing with yourself,' " Watkins said. "That perspective kind of takes the pressure off because you're not competing with these other guys that are here. Everyone is trying to get better."
No one exemplifies that more than Watkins, Kiffin said.
"Every time we give him opportunities, he seems to make plays," Kiffin said. "So we're going to continue to push him. He's going to continue to get more chances."
Contact Steve Corkran at firstname.lastname@example.org.