2023 Notre Dame Breakout Stars: Will Xavier Watts Shine at Safety?

When Xavier Watts was being recruited by Notre Dame as a wide receiver, he was used to having to deal with a safety or two in the secondary. As he gets set for his fourth year with the Irish, he now finds himself among the team’s safeties and hopes to finally emerge as an impact player.

The safety position isn’t foreign territory to Watts, but he’s still on a learning curve when it comes to all the nuances involved. Making his mark on the other side of the line is something that first emerged for him in 2021 when preseason injuries ravaged the linebacker spot. That was a stopgap effort, while this new role is something that might benefit him personally and the Irish as a whole.

As a wideout, Watts showed off impressive speed that he’ll look to continue using this year. His 5-feet-11, 200-pound frame is average for the safety position, though his athleticism and other intangibles effectively cancel out concerns about his ability. In his two years on defense, he’s managed to collect 35 solo tackles.

The Long and Winding Road

After Watts signed his letter-of-intent with Notre Dame, the Nebraska native drew comparisons to former Irish wide receiver Will Fuller because of his speed. That lofty comparison didn’t quite work out, though it was clear that other schools were in hot pursuit of him, including his home state Cornhuskers and a host of other Big Ten schools.

Despite grabbing 128 receptions and scoring 27 touchdowns over his final two high school seasons, the possibility of a shift to defense for Watts remained. During his first year with the Irish in 2020, he barely saw the field, which earned him a redshirt season.

In 2021, the aforementioned injuries to Irish linebackers left Watts with the challenge of playing the Rover position. From a statistical standpoint, that served as a quiet period before eventually evolving into his becoming part of a safety-by-committee rotation. That was necessitated by what turned out to be the season-ending injury to Kyle Hamilton.

Watts began to show his talents during the final portion of that 2021 campaign, beginning with an impressive performance against Navy. That was followed by last season’s effort, in which he had tackles in every game except for the season-opening loss at Ohio State.

In truth, the Irish are seemingly better off when Watts quietly does his job rather than adds to his tackle total. Among his three top games in that particular category, two of them came in losses to Stanford and Southern Cal. The other came in the near-second-half collapse against Navy.

Secondary Matters

For 2023, Watts is currently listed on the Irish two-deep as the team’s starter at strong safety and shouldn’t be in a position where he’s fighting to stay in the starting lineup. Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper might be perceived as a threat to supplant him but Harper is more likely to be used in nickel coverage.

Veteran Ramon Henderson is similar to Watts since he also began his collegiate career as a receiver. However, he’s likely in a battle with DJ Brown at free safety, while Ben Minich is also likely to serve as a backup at either safety spot. Meanwhile, Adon Shuler’s raw talent may not emerge at all this season, in part because he’s coming off shoulder surgery.

Ready for His Close-Up

Watts’ intelligence off the field is evident since he graduated in May with a Bachelor of Arts in design and is ready to go after a master’s in sports analytics. He’s got two more years of eligibility with the Irish.

It would seem likely that Watts will settle for two seasons, but he could lay the groundwork for a potential NFL bid with a solid 2023 campaign. By building on that, a return next year would give him the opportunity to enhance his resume even more and would benefit Notre Dame’s defensive effort at the same time.

Watts’ circuitous route to a starting position in the Irish secondary has seen him wear five different numbers during his time at Notre Dame, including a new one this spring when he switched to #0. That’s something that can cause fans to lose track of him. Yet, Watts appears intent on making sure that he’s a key part of the mix for the Irish this season.

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