Watson reported to Notre Dame as a 6-1, 195-pound running back. It wasn't long before Watson found out he would be switching to linebacker—a switch he wasn't real happy about. "I didn't react very well to it because at the time they told me, I was 195 pounds. In my mind I didn't think it was possible. I thought I would be a 200-pound linebacker for the rest of my career. I just took is slowly and gained weight gradually and now I am up to a normal linebacker size. At first it was a hard adjustment because I had always played offense, I had never played defense before but it has worked out pretty well for me."
Watson took that 195-pound frame and molded it into a play-making machine. Watson clearly makes the defense go and his leadership will be vital to the Irish defense this year. Watson talked about how he approaches leadership. "I just try to fill in when needed," said Watson. "If I see an opportunity where I think something needs to be said or we need to pick it up a bit, I just do it. I just try to fill in where I think I might have something to say that might be helpful to someone. I don't try to preach to everyone, I try to only speak when I feel there is a need for somebody to step and say something."
Notre Dame is very thin at linebacker right now. The Irish have had to do some shuffling with the loss of Mike Goolsby this spring and Corey Mays limited in what he can participate in. At a recent practice the linebackers lined up with Derek Curry playing inside, Watson playing outside and Brandon Hoyte playing the Will linebacker position. Watson said the coaching staff is shuffling guys out of need and to give the linebackers so rest because of the lack of depth. "Basically we are just trying to get through spring and give people a chance to play different spots so it gives guys a chance to get some rest. We are going through a two-hour practice with just five scholarship linebackers. It's helping us because now we have to learn all the positions and it gives us a better understanding of the whole defense. It also helps us in case someone can't go and we've now played the position so someone can take over that spot. I would think that once we get more guys in and the freshman come that it will be back to how it was last year."
The Irish defense played with a lot of passion in 2002 and Watson thinks you will see that same attitude again in 2003. "Hopefully we can capture it again because that is a big part of what we do on defense," said Watson. "Most of that came from the coaching staff and they way they went about motivating the defense. They just made it very positive and making it worthwhile to want to go out and perform. Also we had a lot of veteran guys on defense. Not necessarily seniors but guys who have played a lot of football. When you have that situation, you have guys who are hungry and know what it takes to get the job done."
Somewhere along the way the 195-pound running back became a Butkus Finalist as a linebacker. Watson was clearly excited about the nomination but now considers anything less as a failure. "I think the only reason it's important to me now is because I achieved that last year. Last year was completely different that this year. With the new coaching staff, all the changes, we were really just trying to get under our feet. This year I think it's more of a bigger personal goal for myself because it's something I have achieved already and if I don't make it back to a finalist, I would be a little disappointed that I wasn't able to perform well enough to be a finalist."
Coach Tyrone Willingham has impressed Watson with his leadership and Watson credits Willingham and his staff for the way the Irish have turned their program around. "I think Coach Willingham has changed our entire attitude as a team. The way we approach things and prepare for things has really changed. He's a real big part of the way we've changed our attitude. It's not like we had a ton of new players contributing last year, it was the same guys with just a different attitude. It just shows you how leadership and the attitude you take towards accomplishing your goals can really change the outcome."
Courtney Watson's career at Notre Dame has progressed about as well as he could've hope for. He is thankful for what he has accomplished and shows a real fondness for Notre Dame. Watson talked about what the future might hold for him. "Who knows, I would like to play in the NFL if that is possible. If I can't make it there that would be fine. I'll have graduated from the University of Notre Dame and you hope you could get a job somewhere or going to graduate school or law school. It's so far away but really it isn't that far away. I always to try to prepare myself to do the right things to achieve the goals that I want but I'm not real concerned with that right now. I'm just going to focus on my classes and the season."
Watson is an impressive young man. Instead of pouting about the switch to linebacker, he accepted the change and set his sights on becoming the best linebacker on the team. It's doubtful that Watson ever thought he could be one of the best linebackers in the country when he made the switch but he just might end up there after the 2003 season. Not too shabby for a 195-pound running back.