Nick Watkins knew enough about Notre Dame’s history that Todd Lyght intrigued him before the program’s new defensive backs coach arrived in South Bend. Lyght’s name is on the wall of the defensive backs room inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, notation reserved for All-Americans.
What Watkins didn’t know was what kind of instruction Lyght could offer as a former first-round pick and Super Bowl champion.
“It’s amazing just learning from a guy like that and taking it to the field,” Watkins said. “Coach Lyght, some days he’s more reserved, ‘All right this is what we’re gonna work on.’ Some days he gets the juices flowing and, ‘Let’s go!’ He knows what he’s talking about. I just try to listen, apply the techniques on the field.”
The advice from Lyght seems to have clicked, along with some from Watkins’ father, former second-round pick Bobby Watkins, who spent seven years with the Detroit Lions. That means as Bobby Watkins was playing corner in the NFL, Lyght was starring at nearby Powers Catholic in Flint, Mich.
That professional guidance helped Watkins seemingly jump Devin Butler, taking the bulk of first-team reps during the second half of spring practice. Watkins will likely return to the reserves after Keivarae Russell returns to pair with Cole Luke.
Regardless of where he slots come fall, Watkins’ first spring has been a success.
“Last year I felt like I was just trying to get the feel of everything, the games, the practices, learning how to practice, learning new techniques and stuff,” Watkins said. “This spring it was just a whole different ball game, more confidence to go out there and just be you.”
Watkins got torched by Will Fuller in the Blue-Gold Game on a 68-yard touchdown pass from Malik Zaire. The cornerback also held up otherwise, looking like a former prospect offered by Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida State, LSU, USC, Stanford and Ohio State out of Bishop Dunne in Dallas.
Watkins was so important as a recruit that head coach Brian Kelly spent the Friday night before the Shamrock Series against Arizona State scouting Watkins on the north side of Dallas.
“We feel like he’s an all-around good player,” said safety Max Redfield. “He’s a tall, lanky corner. He’s got long arms. He’s really good out of his break. He’s got decent speed as well.”
Watkins wanted to give himself more credit than that in the speed game, not that Fuller helped his case. Still, there’s no denying the cornerback pieced together a strong spring, soaking in the advice of his dad, Lyght and coordinator Brian VanGorder.
“Just keep trying to move your game forward,” Watkins said of VanGorder’s message. “Every rep is an experience. I just really took that and it’s true. Every rep is an experience. You try to learn from it and you try to get better. As you do that, your play progresses.
“I feel like I progressed a little. I feel way more confident out on the field. I feel like I can cover every one of our guys. That’s the confidence level.”
It was enough to get Watkins to change numbers to No. 21, another nod to Notre Dame history. It’s the same jersey as another former Irish All-American.
“Bobby Taylor did wear it, so we’ll see,” Watkins said. “I just felt like I needed a new number, fresh start.”