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Argonauts defensive back Patrick Watkins, with an interception against the Calgary Stampeders, one of his four over Toronto’s last two games. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Argonauts defensive back Patrick Watkins, with an interception against the Calgary Stampeders, one of his four over Toronto’s last two games. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)


Grateful for the opportunity, Watkins hits his stride with the Argonauts Add to ...

Toronto Argonauts defensive back Patrick Watkins smiles modestly, but doesn’t have to think about it long: No, he can’t remember having a streak of performances quite like this before.

Watkins has hauled in four interceptions in Toronto’s last two games, for a total of five on the season, which leads the CFL.

As the Argos barrelled through a four-game win streak on the road, Watkins was at the heart of various crucial plays, including a forced fumble and a pivotal quarterback sack. Despite the fact it’s only his second year in the league, the 30-year-old has become a leader on a defence that has changed dramatically since winning last year’s Grey Cup.

One might point to his imposing athleticism, added to his experience. Or to his deep appreciation for this opportunity after a knee injury in the NFL had him once believing his football days were over. Either way, Watkins is seriously hitting his stride.

The Argos signed the Florida State University product before the 2012 training camp. Watkins was a fifth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, and spent 2006 to 2009 on their roster. In 2010, the San Diego Chargers put him on injured reserve because of a knee injury, ending his run in the NFL.

“I really wanted to play football again, I wanted to put those last few years behind me,” Watkins said. “They say the knees are the first things to go and when it happened I really worried, ‘Oh, it’s happening to me.’ So I was really grateful to get this CFL opportunity and I have worked my butt off to capitalize on it. I go into the air thinking, ‘I’m 6-[foot]-5, so this is anybody’s ball.’”

After a strong 2012 season in which he was named a CFL East Division all-star, Watkins injured his ankle in the playoffs and had to watch from the sidelines as the Argos won the Grey Cup. So far in 2013, he has already matched his career-best number of interceptions for a season and has tallied 30 tackles, two sacks and two fumbles, despite the fact opponents are throwing to the field opposite the shut-down corner.

“To be as athletic as he is as a cornerback at that height, and add to that his years of NFL experience, that makes him a freak of nature at his position,” Argos defensive back Jalil Carter said. “There are a lot of guys who come from the NFL who think they’re above this league, so they’re not coachable here. Those guys never make it here.

“I would understand it if a talented guy like Pat had that kind of ego, but he doesn’t. He’s very coachable and that’s why he’s been very successful.”

The Argos (9-4) lost several key players from last year’s championship defence, including defensive backs Ahmad Carroll, Evan McCollough and Brandon Isaac and defensive captain Jordan Younger. While the defence took some heat early in the season for giving up big points and plays, it has come together in recent weeks.

“Pat is our leader in the secondary now, and we need him to make those kind of plays,” head coach Scott Milanovich said. “He’s one of the captains we’ve been using defensively, and I think he’s feeling that leadership, like he needs to be accountable for what’s going on back there. He’s grown as a leader.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, receiver Chad Owens returned to practice for the first time since suffering an injury to his ribs on Sept. 3. Milanovich said he might play Friday at home against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (6-7).

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