A contributor from the outset last September, Lone Star State product Nick Watkins earned something no four-star prospect covets in his rookie season: a certificate of participation.
That is, 11 games played with no statistics to show for it.
Watkins and his six-foot, 190-pound frame toiled on Notre Dame’s specialty units last season, earning intermittent time on the kickoff and punt return teams and also covering the occasional kick. It was less of an impact than forecasted by most, especially after a pre-season conversation with former secondary coach, Kerry Cooks.
“I saw length, I saw athleticism, I saw speed,” said Cooks of Watkins on film. “You have to walk that borderline with arrogance. That's what made him one of the best and most sought-after corners in the country. You have to have confidence to play that position. You have to have a short-term memory. Obviously athletic traits: Being able to flip your hips, run, recovery speed, things like that.
“But you give me an arrogant player at that position, you have a chance. (Former Irish cornerback) Robert Blanton ran a 4.7 (40-yard dash) at the combine and he's going on his third year in the NFL. Arrogant kid. And I don't say that in a bad way.”
Watkins will get a chance to display that arrogance, not to mention quickness and athleticism, early and often this fall.
Watkins cements the role of first corner off the bench behind KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, playing well enough on the perimeter to allow the multi-talented Russell to operate on occasion as the team’s nickel defender – easily the most difficult coverage role vs. quality passing attacks.
In congress with junior cornerback Devin Butler, fifth-year senior Matthias Farley, senior John Turner, fifth-year transfer Avery Sebastian, and do-everything junior James Onwualu, Watkins’ sophomore season ideally would include special teams duties in an effort to allow secondary starters Russell, Luke, Max Redfield, and Elijah Shumate much-needed respite over the course of three months.
But a reliable No. 3 cornerback is essential in the modern game, and Watkins appears to possess the coverage skills to thrive in that role before ascending to a starting position in 2016.
Watkins and junior corner Devin Butler battle to a stalemate in August camp and Notre Dame is left with “two” No. 4 cornerbacks rather than a no-doubt No. 3.
If neither Watkins nor Butler earn the staff’s trust, either a true freshman (likely Shaun Crawford) or 2014 nickel Matthias Farley will be tasked with coverage duties from the slot. Farley excelled last season near scrimmage but struggled downfield, and the nickel role is better manned by a player with experience rather than a true freshman, even one as competitive as Crawford.
KeiVarae Russell’s occasional aid in this realm would prove invaluable, and that’s based on Watkins’ ability to hold down the fort as a perimeter reserve.
A litany of true freshmen cornerbacks have earned rookie year playing time without making an impact, though truth be told, precious few appeared in 10-plus games without registering a tackle.
In terms of highly touted freshmen that made little initial impact, but played as rookies, a realistic early comparison for Watkins is 2006 newcomer Raeshon McNeil. After appearing in 11 games, largely on special teams as a true freshman (Watkins played in 11 as well), McNeil followed that debut with 11 appearances and one start as a sophomore in 2007, playing behind classmate Darrin Walls and 5th-year senior Terrail Lambert.
McNeil went on to start all 13 games as a junior for the 2008 Irish – it’s a career path forecasted for Watkins at present.
Too soon to tell, but Watkins – a four-star prospect and the 20th-ranked corner nationally per Scout.com – appears ready to contribute as the squad’s No. 3 cornerback as a true sophomore.
Should he follow up his spring surge with a strong summer and outstanding August Camp, Watkins will be on a pace indicative of a four-star, skill position prospect.
Still to come…
“Nick Watkins has taken a big step up this spring. He's got a ways to go. (He’s) ascending in a sense that I don't want to put them in a category where (he’s) ready to start for us. But he's put himself in position to challenge Devin Butler to the point where he's equaled out the reps over there.
“I think both of them (Jay Hayes, Watkins) are "ascending" if we were to (talk) in a general sense. Ascending for us is really the best way to put it for where we see them. They're not at a championship level. It would be unfair for us to put them in that category at this point in their careers. But they are getting better at their craft.” – Brian Kelly evaluating his top youngsters last spring.