NO. 8: CB-NICK WATKINS (RS-Jr.)
• The Journey: Nick Watkins was a highly-decorated (Scout’s No. 20-rated) cornerback out of Dallas in 2014 and the only player at his position in Notre Dame’s 23-man class.
One of 10 players in the Class of 2014 to make his debut in the season-opener against Rice, Watkins played in 11 of 13 games (all but Game 2 vs. Michigan and Game 5 vs. Stanford), but failed to register a tackle.
With KeiVarae Russell returning from a year’s suspension and Cole Luke in his second year as a starter at cornerback in 2015, Watkins remained in the background while recording eight tackles and a pass defensed as a regular member of the Irish special teams and a backup cornerback.
When Russell went down with a season-ending injury in November and Devin Butler suffered an injury during preparation for Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, Watkins started against the Buckeyes and made three tackles with a pass broken up.
Russell’s departure for the NFL following the ’15 season afforded Watkins a golden opportunity in the spring of ’16 opposite Luke. But a broken arm – an injury that would linger into the 2016 season – prompted the decision to preserve a year of eligibility in the fall, thus leaving Watkins with two years left heading into 2017.
• The Spring: Watkins and sophomore Julian Love have been the undisputed frontrunners at the two cornerback positions this spring, although once Shaun Crawford (Achilles) returns to full health, he’ll likely press for a starting spot at cornerback or, at the very least, the nickel. (Note: Crawford is more suited for the field cornerback spot – Love’s position – than the boundary.)
While nothing in particular has jumped out regarding Watkins during practice observations of open media sessions – he did drop an interception opportunity of an errant Brandon Wimbush pass last week -- he’s the been boundary cornerback of choice ahead of sophomore Donte Vaughn all along.
At 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, Watkins gives the Irish a sturdy run defender on the short side of the field. He showed good instincts and cover skills in his one start against Ohio State and now, fully recovered from his arm injury, looks poised to be a two-year starter with eligibility through the 2018 season.
• The Quote: “He had a terrific off-season in the weight room, and you can see his transition out of his break, breaking on the ball and playing physical at the line of scrimmage.” – Brian Kelly
“We played him as a freshman and that’s probably my fault that we didn’t utilize him properly. I don’t want to do that to a kid again.” – Kelly
“At this position, you’ve got to have confidence. I always felt like I was the best corner in the room from the time I came here. All I needed was an opportunity.” –Watkins