Coming back from a 2016 campaign that was completely wiped out by injury, junior cornerback Nick Watkins is one of the key players that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is looking at when it comes to changing the losing atmosphere that enveloped the team last season. At the very least, his return helps bolster an area that took plenty of hits during a miserable 4-8 season.
The bloodline of Watkins is a strong one, given the fact that his father, Bobby, played seven seasons in the defensive backfield of the Detroit Lions during the 1980’s. Playing his high school ball at Dallas Bishop Dunne in Texas, Watkins was one of the school’s big signings in 2014, having shown he could also catch the ball on offense.
The Irish had to outlast the likes of Florida State, Baylor, USC and UCLA during those recruiting wars. All of the schools were intrigued by his blend of size (6-1, 205) and athleticism that could conceivably see him shifting to a safety slot in an emergency situation. Ultimately, though, his skills will likely serve Note Dame best on the corners.
Watkins’ freshman campaign was a case of his playing in plain sight, meaning that he saw action in 11 of 13 contests, mostly on special teams. Yet by the time the year ended, he had no statistical numbers to show for his time on the field. As a sophomore, his playing time increased, but he didn’t make his first start until the 2016 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. During spring ball last year, a fractured left humerus ended up keeping him on the sidelines all season long.
Reason for Optimism
Many of the assets that Watkins brings to the field have already been noted, yet they’ve largely been hidden by his absence from the Irish defensive backfield. That figures to change this season, considering he’s expected to latch on to a starting job for good. Given the struggles this department had last season, the bar isn’t really that high for him to improve on things.
The return of Watkins, coupled with the comeback of Shaun Crawford from a season-ending Achilles injury, will help provide a couple of strong building blocks for Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator, Mike Elko. The use of a 4-2-5 defense requires the entire Irish secondary to step up their game, concern made easier by the experienced hands returning.
Another reason for the rise in the comfort level regarding Watkins is that he has the temperament to handle the position. Having been groomed by his father to understand what’s expected helps give the junior some unique insight, which should allow him to remain on an even keel in this sometimes-volatile area.
Reason for Doubt
Even the best secondaries can be victimized when a team lacks any sort of sustained pass rush, which means that Watkins needs to hope that his defensive brethren will bring a little more aggression this year. Without that sort of assistance, it could end up being a long year for all involved.
Kelly and his staff are fully cognizant of the simple fact that Watkins has yet to make a real impact during his time in South Bend. That means that there’s no guarantee that integrating the junior into a cornerback slot will be the elixir that’s needed for the defense, especially when a pair of home tests against Temple and Georgia are first on the agenda.
Watkins has given every sign that he’s fully prepared for those challenges, yet spring football can hardly be used as a strong litmus test to gauge his skills. One other smaller concern involves the possibility of a recurrence of his 2016 injury troubles, though no negatives cropped up when he was able test it out earlier this year.
In the early going, Watkins is likely to be joined on the corner by Julian Love, a sophomore who got his baptism under fire last year. While Crawford is aiming to start on September 2 against Temple, an Achilles injury always involves a dicey rehab, so Watkins may have a little more pressure applied on him during this stretch.
Watkins is expected to beat out another sophomore, Donte Vaughn, for his cornerback job. The fact that the Irish have plenty of depth in this area is a positive sign and one that could help get the team through some rough stretches during the course of the year. Of course, the troubles the team endured in this area also means that they’ll be vigorously tested until they prove that they can handle the opposition.
The good news for Irish fans is that Watkins is a much better defensive back than a cheerleader, a frustrating role that he was reduced to last year. Having a standout campaign might even help his NFL Draft status in 2018, though simply producing on a regular basis is all that’s really required of him for this season.
If the season concludes and there’s even talk of Nick Watkins entering the Draft, Notre Dame football will have been the beneficiary of a solid season.