SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Nick Watkins didn’t understand the big deal, so he kept it to himself.
When the sophomore cornerback learned he’d make his first career start against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl after Devin Butler broke his foot Monday, Watkins didn’t call home to Dallas. He didn’t call his high school coach at Bishop Dunne. He didn’t post anything on Twitter. Basically, he acted like nothing had changed at all.
And it’s not like there was some competitive advantage to be protected. Brian Kelly announced the move a day after it happened. Faced with a potential turning point in his college career, Watkins shrugged his shoulders.
“I think that’s just how I am,” Watkins said. “I really didn’t look at it as big news.”
In reality, it’s huge news for No. 8 Notre Dame against No 7 Ohio State as the Irish hunt their first 11-win season in Watkins’ lifetime, needing to take down last year’s national champions to get there.
It’s easy to argue Watkins is an athletic upgrade to Butler considering the former four-star was coveted by a national field that included Alabama. It’s also fair to wonder why a player that talented would be stuck on the bench within a threadbare secondary. Notre Dame will kick off the Fiesta Bowl down six frontline defensive backs.
“I don’t think he’s been a great practice player,” Kelly said. “I think he’s been a spotty practice player. I think he’s a guy who will make a play and then won’t show up for a little bit. I think that’s just maturity.”
Watkins knows it. He admits it. Same goes for his dad, former NFL corner Bobby Watkins. Same goes for his high school coach Michael Johnson, who would plead, yell and scream for Watkins to practice harder at Dunne. Sometimes the cornerback would respond. Sometimes he wouldn’t. But he always delivered on Friday nights.
Of course, it’s not like Johnson had a Watkins equivalent on the bench to help make his point. Sitting his star cornerback was never an option. Notre Dame could make its point that way.
“Nick is the type of kid, once he’s in the game, he’s gonna make plays. That’s how it is,” Johnson said. “I want to see the type of player that Notre Dame wanted.”
Listed at 6-foot, 200 pounds, Watkins appears longer and leaner than that. His build borders on prototype, the kind of corner every program wants and can’t wait to play. There are the genetics too. His father played at Southwest Texas State before a seven-year career with the Detroit Lions.
Bobby Watkins won’t be in Arizona on Friday. When the bowl bids came out he asked off his job as a traffic cop – he actually worked on Christmas – but didn’t want to make the trip here to see his son sit.
Turns out the past two seasons may have been harder on father than son, Bobby wondering if Nick should transfer closer to home. Watkins admitted leaving Notre Dame crossed his mind too, not that he ever admitted it to his dad. Just like his promotion to the starting lineup, Watkins kept that to himself.
“Nick is kind of reserved, one of those guys you don’t curse out, don’t have to yell, just kind of laid back and cool,” Bobby Watkins said. “But sometimes I get to wondering, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying? <I> Son, do you understand what I’m saying?’</I> That’s how he is.”
It’s not that Watkins doesn’t get it. He was a three-sport star at Bishop Dunne. He did community service projects like Habitat For Humanity and the Special Olympics. He was an academic all-state pick. He just doesn’t talk much about it.
Maybe Notre Dame’s biggest source of confidence with Watkins is the fact he started delivering in practice the same day Butler went down. During Monday’s workout he made a one-handed interception. Of course he didn’t talk about it. Johnson only got Watkins to admit to the turnover after seeing it on social media.
Notre Dame can only hope for more of the same.
“I think when the lights go on, I think he’s going to compete very well,” Kelly said. “I'd be surprised if he didn't play well. He's going to get picked on. I sure would pick on him if I was them.”