Notre Dame senior cornerback Nick Watkins was ready to step into the starting line up last year after a trial by fire in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. Things didn’t go as planned. An injury in spring practice a year ago lingered all season costing Watkins his junior campaign. A year later Watkins is back on the practice field and the Irish secondary should benefit greatly from his return.
Nick Watkins played fairly sparingly throughout his sophomore campaign in 2015 as he waited his turn behind the likes of Keivarae Russell and Cole Luke. After Russell fell to injury at the end of the regular season and Devin Butler broke his foot in Fiesta Bowl practices though, Watkins was thrust into his first career start against the high flying Ohio State offense.
The results in the Fiesta Bowl were mixed for Watkins. The Buckeyes wisely targeted the first time starter throughout the game and while he gave up some plays early, he rebounded nicely in the second half and showed some of the talent that got him rated as a 4-star recruit out of high school.
That experience was supposed to serve Watkins well in 2016. Injuries had other ideas though. After breaking his arm in spring ball, Watkins missed the start of training camp as the injury lingered. There was still optimism that Watkins would play in 2016 though. Brian Kelly even said in September that he thought they might have Watkins back in early October.
Instead of returning in early October, Kelly announced that Watkins was getting shut down for the season a few days into the month.
Watkins’ injury helped provide a talented group of freshman defensive backs to get valuable experience last fall. Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, and Troy Pride Jr all saw extensive time at corner and nickel for the Irish as a result of the injuries to Watkins and Shaun Crawford and the suspension of Devin Butler.
Watkins has returned to the practice field this spring and while Crawford is taking part in agility drills – he won’t be involved in any contact following his torn Achilles injury suffered in week two. That creates a huge opportunity for Watkins and provides the Notre Dame secondary with a boost as it looks to replace starter Cole Luke.
Now that Watkins is back on the field, however, his starting spot is anything but guaranteed. Those freshmen from a year ago are not only a year older and wiser from their experience, but their taste of playing time has them hungry for more. Julian Love specifically played so well last year that was named a freshman All-American. Troy Pride has his moments as well and has been tearing up the track field this off-season. Donte Vaughn made that ridiculous interception against Duke and with his height, he is a very intriguing option.
Those three frosh, along with Watkins will be battling for the starting two corner positions this spring before Crawford returns for fall camp and hopefully, really complicates matters by returning close to form from his second major knee injury.
How the secondary shakes up – especially the corner positions – will be one of the more interesting storylines this spring. Notre Dame can’t bank on a full recovery from Crawford after another major injury last fall. He is still likely to be more than just serviceable but after tearing his ACL and Achilles in back to back seasons, Notre Dame needs to prepare as though his contributions will be limited (that said, we’re BIG fans of Crawford here and are hoping for a full recovery).
That could mean planning on having a pair of tall corners like Watkins (6’1″) and Vaughn (6’2″) start on the outside with Julian Love at the nickel. If Crawford comes back as strong as ever and takes back that nickel role, well then Notre Dame might just have a great problem to have on their hands.
Nick Watkins still has two years of eligibility remaining and considering the injury history of Crawford, Notre Dame needs Watkins from a leadership standpoint. Notre Dame’s other corners are talented, but they are also young and Notre Dame is short on numbers at the position thanks for the decommitments of Paulson Adebo and Elijah Hicks with no backups or replacements in the class of 2017. Watkins will be the elder statesmen of the group in many ways despite having less experience than the super sophs.
We all saw a glimpse of the talent that Nick Watkins possesses in the Fiesta Bowl. He was far from a finished product that afternoon, but it would serve Notre Dame very well this year if Watkins is able to pick up where he left off and lock down a starting spot. He will get a chance to start down that process this spring.