Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Captain’s Corner with Courtney Watson

Watson recaps the issues Notre Dame’s defense had early against Navy’s triple-option and the adjustments made to limit the Midshipmen to 73 yards rushing in the second half.

In an era when quality individual play often was overlooked by the team’s failure to match the success of the Lou Holtz era, 6-foot-1, 234-pound linebacker Courtney Watson was a standout player for the Fighting Irish, particularly in his final two seasons (2002-03).

Watson, a Sarasota, Fla., product who rushed for 1,220 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior at Riverview High School, blossomed into a quality college linebacker, pacing the team in tackles in 2002 and 2003.

Watson was a ball hawk for the Irish. As a red-shirt sophomore in 2001, he had 18 tackles against Nebraska and 10 each against Michigan State and Texas A&M.

A year later, he was named to the ESPN.com first-team All-American squad when he had 90 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, eight passes broken up and four interceptions, including a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown against Florida State. Against Michigan State, he had 15 tackles, 12 of which were solo.

Watson capped off his quality college career with a 117-tackle fifth-year senior season, totaling 15 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two more interceptions, raising his career total for aerial thefts to seven.

He played his share of games against Navy as well as USC. The former Irish standout reviews Notre Dame’s 41-24 victory over the Midshipmen, looks back at the tough loss at Clemson, and looks ahead to this weekend’s rivalry game with the Trojans.


When it comes to triple-option football, you’ve got to get accustomed to it because it’s not something you see all the time. Even though you play one or two teams a year that play triple-option, it’s still a huge change to get used to. The biggest thing is trying to keep people off your knees and off your legs so you can still be involved in the play and can hustle and try to get involved with a pitch or a quarterback run.

The thing that I learned pretty early on, and our assistant coaches did a great of teaching it, was that you’ve got to defeat the block first. A lot of times, if you’re not accustomed to it, you’re trying to play through the block without looking at the guy who’s blocking you. You have to pay attention to those guys all the way through the block because even if they miss you on their initial attempt, they continue to roll and crab and try to at least get in your way.

So to me, that’s the biggest thing: having that discipline to take your eyes, look at the blocker, defeat the blocker, and then try to get involved in the play.

What wasn’t happening at the beginning of the Notre Dame-Navy game Saturday was what they did do well against Georgia Tech. In the first quarter, quarter-and-a-half, their alley players weren’t taking very many good angles to the football. You could tell that by the way the quarterback was able to cut underneath the linebackers and safeties. Notre Dame ended up taking one of its safeties out because he wasn’t finding that alley.

When I was at Notre Dame, we were fortunate because we always had veteran safeties. We had Gerome Sapp and Glenn Earl, and those guys played the alley perfectly. They didn’t overrun the quarterback or the pitch. They always played it inside-out.

Not only is Keenan Reynolds a great runner with great vision, he’s also hard to tackle. He’s quick and he’s small, which makes it even more difficult. That one move inside of that safety or the linebacker is against the entire grain of the defense, and now you’ve got a 20- or 30-yard run. That was the biggest thing in the first half. When the quarterback ran or he pitched the ball, we just weren’t making sound tackles in the alleys and that’s what led to those big runs.

Another thing that Navy does is they give you a lot of looks. Georgia Tech only gives you a handful of formations. Navy was doing a lot of motions, several of which they didn’t do when I was there (12 years ago). Motioning that slot guy out. A lot of that stuff is just fluff to get your eyes off your keys. Once the linebackers and the safeties got accustomed to the new motion and accustomed to what they were going to do and played just a half a second slower, it allowed them to nail down Navy’s offense in the second half.

In the first half, they had some problems getting lined up. I saw Jaylon (Smith) kind of in no-man’s land, which you can’t afford to do against this offense. In the second half, they were much more in tune. They knew what they were going to be getting. They were accustomed to the motions at that point. Once you’re accustomed to that, now you can just go out and play. You don’t have to worry about so much other stuff. You can just go and play.

If you give (DeShone) Kizer the opportunity to stand back there and set his feet against a zone defense, he’s proven that he’s going to do very well against that. I’ve really been impressed with his progress. If you give him time and you put him back there against a zone defense, he can dink and dunk his way down the field. He seems to get more and more comfortable as the season goes on.

If you watch his body language, other than the touchdown pass at Virginia, he never gets too high, he never gets too low, and that’s a sign of maturity that you definitely want at the quarterback position. He seems unflappable. He’s on to the next play, whether it’s a good play or a bad play. He stands in there under pressure and makes big throws down the field.

I hadn’t seen Kizer play until this year. I didn’t see his high school stuff or his play in the Blue-Gold Game. He’s shown a pocket presence and a presence on the field that you need from your quarterback. In that Virginia game, you’ve got to have that steady head that everybody can rally around.

Against Navy, I wish they would have made some double moves on the outside with Will Fuller and Chris Brown. (Navy) started sitting on the shorter routes. If we would have put some double moves in there, we could have been able to get some big plays downfield.

What I really like about this team is the change in the play-calling. They’ve done a great job – especially now with Kizer in there – of developing an offensive identity, and they’ve been able to establish an identity with Kizer, kind of on the run. Knowing what we want to get accomplished on the offensive side of the ball helps the defense. If (the defense) knows the offense is going to go out there and put together eight-, 10-, 11-play drives, that’s huge.

I love when they have Prosise in Pistol with Kizer in the shotgun. (Prosise) seems very patient when he runs out of that and he makes very good cuts and he has very good vision, as does Josh Adams. (Adams) doesn’t have the agility or speed that Prosise does, but when he makes the cut, he runs very hard.

I like our front. I like our offensive and defensive line fronts. We’re going to have to rely on that. One of the major differences that we have at Notre Dame right now is the line play on offense and defense. You go back and look at that team that played Alabama for the national championship. You couldn’t even compare the fronts to our team now.

You also see a Notre Dame team that is very well coached to be able to deal with what they were dealing with in Clemson. How that game started and how they battled back says a lot. Kizer settled in and he helped put them in the position to win the game.

The Clemson loss definitely was a missed opportunity, and I don’t know how it will play out the rest of the season or the playoffs. What it does for me as a fan now is that it shows they have kids with some mental fortitude and they have a coaching staff that’s able to figure out ways to get plays made.

You see it in the NFL and in college. Time management and turnovers…you can only get yourself in those situations so many times, and that hurt us against Clemson. As much as we’re sitting back and we can judge what they’re doing because we can rewind and pause and we have commentators, I think overall we have a coaching staff and an identity that will help us going forward.

Once you get to Notre Dame and you become a part of the program and you buy into everything that is there, if you take all the big games that we have and USC is at the top.

When I first got to Notre Dame, USC was kind of down and we were kind of down too. Pete Carroll was just getting stuff going. They didn’t have their recruiting pipeline going at that time. But it was always a huge game.

Those are the games where the team, the coach, and the players are measured. Notre Dame-USC. Notre Dame-Michigan. Those are the games that matter to the fans and to the program. It’s always a measuring stick. You’re playing against guys that you got recruited against or recruited with, guys you’ll be competing against if you’re able to play on Sunday.

It’s cool because for us, we had rivals that were all over the country. It’s not like if you’re in the SEC and your rival is Alabama and Auburn. It’s cool to have a rival where you’re in Indiana and they’re in California.

It was always a big game, always a measuring-stick game. You’re always playing against some of the best players in the country and you know it’s going to be a huge game, regardless of what your season’s like. Notre Dame-USC always matters.

A huge indicator is being able to control the line of scrimmage against USC. Contain their skill athlete guys. They always have very skilled guys on the outside and we now do too for the first time in a long time. We have good cover guys and we obviously have a very good group of four or five receivers.

If we can rely on what our strengths are, I think we should be all right and it should be a good game, a game we can win at home.


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