Nick Watkins was the kind of prospect Brian Kelly wanted to see for himself.
The night before Notre Dame faced Arizona State in the Shamrock Series at AT&T Stadium three years ago, Kelly and Tony Alford travelled to the north side of Dallas to watch the four-star cornerback live. They came away impressed, believing Watkins had some KeiVarae Russell in his game. Both wore No. 6.
Yet unlike the player Watkins drew a comparison to that night, the Bishop Dunne product didn’t make an immediate impact when he arrived in South Bend. In fact, the first 25 games of his career passed without incident. Then came the Fiesta Bowl, with Russell already lost to a stress fracture and Devin Butler going down with a broken foot.
Watkins got pushed into the spotlight against Ohio State. And he pushed back, even in a game where Notre Dame’s defense was torn apart. So what’s next for Watkins? Was the Fiesta Bowl a one-off or the start of something bigger?
Watkins is next in Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z series.
It’s hard to imagine Watkins beating out Cole Luke or Shaun Crawford for a starting job, but it’s easy to imagine the junior offering a reliability Notre Dame doesn’t get often from its third cornerback. With Devin Butler sidelined again by a broken foot and sophomores Nick Coleman and Ashton White on the fringes, Watkins has a chance to be a regular in nickel packages and an every down player in 2017 as a senior. Considering how Notre Dame plays defense, that third corner works nearly as much as the starting Will linebacker. That’s a good place for Watkins to be entering his final two seasons. If he’d been able to red shirt as a freshman instead of playing scant reps, the career arc of this former four-star recruit would be almost perfect.
There’s another Shaun Crawford coming in Notre Dame’s freshman class, meaning Watkins falls behind another younger player. While there’s not a ton of difference between being the second and third corner in the Irish defense, a drop to No. 4 is huge. Watkins must avoid that, which means holding off Nick Coleman and Ashton White in the sophomore class (likely), plus incoming freshmen Troy Pride Jr., Julian Love and Donte Vaughn. While a junior should beat out a freshman at his position almost every time, Crawford zipped by everybody but KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke last August. Could Pride, Love or Vaughn do the same to Watkins? It’s on the Texas product to make sure that doesn’t happen. He’s got the skills to make sure it doesn’t.
Watkins isn’t the first top cornerback prospect to come to Notre Dame and wait two years to make an impact. In the 2003 recruiting class the Irish signed four-star cornerback Ambrose Wooden out of The Gilman School in Baltimore as a four-star prospect with a national offer list. Wooden enrolled as a receiver and red-shirted before moving to cornerback as a sophomore but rarely playing. Yet as a junior, Wooden broke into the starting lineup during a BCS-level season. Watkins is in position to do the same after working in the background as a freshman and sophomore.
Development Vs. Recruiting Ranking
Watkins went as high as No. 123 overall on ESPN, which put the Under Armour All-American at No. 14 among cornerbacks nationally. Everybody else was more cautious on Watkins despite a rock solid offer list that included Alabama, Florida State, LSU and USC. Rivals put Watkins at No. 186, Scout had him No. 205 and 247 ranked the Texas product at No. 296. Through two years it’s hard to say anybody got Watkins’ ranking right if four-star prospects are supposed to be multi-year starters. Still, there’s a decent chance for Watkins to make good on his national profile as a junior and senior. But catching up to his elevated ESPN ranking will be a real challenge.
Watkins At His Best
There’s only one real choice, but the answer isn’t by default. The only start of Watkins’ career was the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, but the cornerback played well with three tackles and a pass breakup. Not bad for what essentially was the first real game of his career.
Quote To Note
“I think when the lights go on, I think he’s going to compete very well. 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.” – Brian Kelly on Nick Watkins before the Fiesta Bowl