UHND’s countdown of the top 11 Notre Dame players since 2000 continues today and we’re staying on the defensive side of the ball for a second straight day. Our #9 spot is filled by a high school running back who was the last stud linebacker for the Irish before Charlie Weis pulled off the recruiting coup of his career with Manti T’eo. Our number 9 position is filled by Florida native Courtney Watson.
Courtney Watson’s Notre Dame career summary
Watson was an unheralded running back recruit when he came to Notre Dame, but left as the most productive linebacker of the decade for the Irish. Watson was actually one of the few instances from the Bob Davie era of a player coming in as a raw prospect and being coached up the maximum of his ability. For most of the Davie era, talent was squandered as opposed to maximized – see the cases of players such as David Givens, Jabari Holloway, Javin Hunter, et al.
Beings as Watson played primarily running back in high school, he spent the his freshman season in 1999 redshirting and adjusting to the defensive side of the ball. In 2000 Watson spent most of his time on special teams (making 175 appearances) but did see some time as a reserve linebacker as well while appearing in nine games on the defensive side of the ball playing behind second team All American Anthony Denman.
In 2001 Watson earned a starting job with Denman moving on to the NFL after exhausting his eligibility. Watson started all 11 games for Notre Dame as a junior and ended up second on the team in tackles wit 76 behind only Tyreo Harrison. Watson was also second on the team in tackles for loss with 13 behind Anthony Weaver. In his first career start, the 2001 season opener against Nebraska, Watson set a personal career high with 18 tackles in an otherwise forgettable game. That tackle total still sits just outside the top 10 single game tackle performances in ND history today.
It was Watson’s senior season in 2002 in which he rose to stardom though as one of the leaders of the last great Notre Dame defense (before the defense we saw over the final 4 games of 2010). Despite missing three games in 2002 due to illness and injury, Watson led the team in tackles with 90 and was tied for second in both interceptions (4) and tackles for loss (10). Watson made several huge plays for the Irish defense in Tyrone Willingham’s first season at Notre Dame including an interception return for a touchdown against Stanford to pull away from the Cardinal and another interception in the third quarter of the Florida State game when the Irish pulled away from the Seminole’s. One of Watson’s most overlooked plays of his career also occurred in 2002 when he helped preserve Notre Dame’s then 39 game winning streak over Navy with a late game interception.
Watson’s 2002 performance earned him several post-season accolades including being a finalist for the Butkus Award – the last Notre Dame linebacker to be named a finalist for the award and just the second ever joining Michael Stonebreaker – a two time third place finisher. He was also on several All American teams including a 1st team selection by ESPN and 3rd team selections from both Sporting News and the AP.
In 2003 Watson returned for a fifth season, and while he and the rest of the Irish defense were not able to recapture the magic they had in 2002, Watson paced the Irish with 117 tackles and was second on the team in tackles for loss with 15. Those 117 tackles were the most by an Irish defender in the 2000′s until Manti Te’o's 133 tackles in 2010. Watson started the season on the Butkus Watch List and made the cut to a semi-finalist during the season, but did not make the final cut again in 2003.
Why Courtney Watson made the list
When you look back at all of the linebackers who played for the Irish since 2000, Watson simply had the best career of any of them up until this point. Next year at this time Manti Te’o's career could easily surpass Watson’s but with just one full season of starting experience under his belt, Te’o still trails Watson – the last big play linebacker for the Irish until Te’o arrived in South Bend.
Watson was a key member of the 2002 defense that carried an often anemic offense to a 10 win season in Willingham’s first season on the sidelines in South Bend. Despite missing three games that season, Watson still turned in the best all around seasons any Notre Dame linebacker had from 2000-2010 with 90 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 1 defensive touchdown – that is making your impact felt all over the field.
Over the last 11 years there may have been bigger or faster linebackers and maybe even some linebackers who were better than Watson in certain areas, but in terms of being an overall linebacker, Notre Dame had none better over the last 11 years than the former high school running back. Watson was a sure tackle, made his presence felt behind the line of scrimmage, and was the best backer Notre Dame has had in some time when dropping back into coverage.
To give a little more insight into Watson’s coverage skills, consider this – Notre Dame has had talented defensive backs pass through its doors over the decade who have left Notre Dame with fewer career interceptions than Watson’s 7. For instance, Darrin Walls, Brock Williams (a 3rd round NFL draft pick), Gerome Sapp, Chinedum Ndukwe, and Terrail Lambert all had fewer career interceptions. Vontez Duff, a three year starter at cornerback for Notre Dame, had just as many picks as Watson. And our #10 player on this countdown, Tom Zbikowski, was a four year starter for the Irish and only had one more career pick than Watson.
A lot of Notre Dame fans tend to forget or overlook Watson’s accomplishments, but Watson was an all around linebacker and was easily one of the top 10 players for Notre Dame over the last 11 years.
Notable performances, records & awards at Notre Dame
- 7th All-time in Notre Dame history in tackles for loss with 39
- ESPN 1st Team All American in 2002
- Sporting News and AP 3rd Team All American in 2002
- Finalist for Butkus Award in 2002
- Semifinalist for Butkus Award in 2003
- Recorded 18 tackles against Nebraska in 2001 in just his first career start
- Returned interception 33 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee in 2001 – also recorded a sack in the game
- Led Notre Dame in tackles in 2002 with 90 despite missing three games
- Had 15 tackle, 2 sack performance against Michigan State in 2002
- Returned interception 34 yards for a touchdown against Stanford in 2002
- Helped break open 2002 Florida State game with a 3rd quarter interception
- Led Notre Dame in tackles again in 2003 with 117 (next closest Irish defender had 74); was also 2nd on team in tackles for loss with 15.
Post Notre Dame career
After completing his stellar career at Notre Dame, Watson was selected in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft 60th overall by the New Orleans Saints. That selection remains the highest a Notre Dame linebacker has been selected in the draft in 18 years since Demetrius Dubose was selected with the 5th pick of the second round of the 1993 draft by the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Unfortunately for Watson, he was not able to replicate the success he had at Notre Dame in the pros. He started a few games over his first two seasons in New Orleans and collected 94 tackles and 3 sacks over that time, but has not been on an active roster since the 2005 season – his last in New Orleans. Watson was traded to Buffalo in 2006, but was released before ever playing a game for the Bills. He was later picked up by the Houston Texans, but has been out of the NFL since.
Best of the 2000′s