Xavier Watts making strides at safety position for Notre Dame

Greg McKenna
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Xavier Watts (26) hits Georgia Tech's Jordan Yates (13) during the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Very little was going Omaha Burke High School's way when the 2018 Nebraska Class A football title game reached halftime.

The Bulldogs were undefeated, but a scrappy Grand Island team led 14-3. Burke’s star junior, Xavier Watts, had hauled in a Hail Mary pass as the half expired, only to have it called back for illegal formation.

Burke head coach Paul Limongi had simple instructions for the consensus No. 2 player from Nebraska: Step up and take this game over.

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So that's what he did.

Watts caught touchdown passes of 62 and 38 yards in the second half and finished with a game-high 159 receiving yards as Burke stormed back to clinch a perfect season and the Bulldogs’ first state title in school history.

A varsity starter for three years, Watts shined as a two-way player for Limongi, who praised his range, tackling and ability to attack the football at safety. He’s not surprised Watts has become an integral part of Notre Dame’s safety room after transitioning over from receiver early last season.

“He was so good back there that I could see him playing either one in college,” Limongi said. “And I think the main thing with him is (that) he’s just a football player. He just wants to play and compete.”

Anytime Limongi needed players to help with community events, Watts was there. He helped with peer tutoring and attended the team’s weekly study halls, even if they were intended for teammates who were struggling academically.

“He was always the same guy whether he was getting all the attention or just one of the guys,” Limongi said, “and that is what truly made him uncommon.”

Nov 13, 2021; Charlottesville, Virginia, USA; Virginia Cavaliers qb/wr Keytaon Thompson (99) is tackled by Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Xavier Watts (26) during the second quarter at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska recruited him hard, and Watts, now a junior, admits he received some blowback for choosing South Bend over Lincoln, but Notre Dame was a natural fit.

“He took it in stride and focused on what he wanted to do and what his family wanted him to do, Limongi said. “And he just took it and went with it, so it was a great decision and he’s proving it every day.”

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Injuries during Watts’ first spring after enrolling a semester early, as well as his freshman fall and spring, stunted his momentum at receiver.

“I had a lot of good flashes,” he said. “I did some good things at receiver, but it didn’t end up working out.”

But after linebacker Paul Moala was lost to a season-ending Achilles injury, Watts was moved to defense, first plugging a hole at rover.

That didn’t last long, though. Watts quickly impressed then-defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman at safety, where he became a vital part of a rotation forced to cope without star safety Kyle Hamilton after the projected top-10 NFL pick suffered a knee injury in the Oct. 23, 2021 win over USC.

Watts finished the season with 15 tackles, including a career-high five (four solo) in a win at Virginia.

Watts admits he’s still learning to trust his technique and footwork in the secondary.

“(I’m) still working on the technical skills, the basic fundamentals (and) still trying to learn all the coverages — just the basic things a safety should know how to do,” he said.

One thing safeties coach Chris O’Leary doesn’t have to teach him, however, is how to hit.

“When your pads pop in the secondary, it’s probably him making a tackle,” O’Leary said. “And that’s just something that is natural for him. He did it in high school, and he’s doing it now. That’s what gives me optimism about where he’s going to end up.”

The receiving corps is currently much thinner with Joe Wilkins Jr. out for the spring due after undergoing foot surgery and Avery Davis sitting until August with a torn ACL. Watts won’t be moving back to plug another hole anytime soon, though. When asked his preference after last season, he opted to remain at safety.

“Just switching back and forth would have been too much,” he said ahead of the Fiesta Bowl when asked whether he thought he would be moved back to receiver after Davis went down against Navy. “I was a little bit like, ‘Hey, that’s something I’ve done.’ I enjoy playing safety. I would say I like it better than receiver for right now.”

The safeties group is laden with upperclassman leaders like DJ Brown, who transitioned from cornerback to safety early in his Notre Dame career. Brown remembers the challenge of suddenly having to think a lot more, so he’s been impressed with Watts’ improvement making defensive calls.

O’Leary also said that’s where Watts has improved and must continue to grow.

“He needs to understand, ‘What’s my part of the defense?’” O’Leary said. “Not just what my job is, but how do I affect the other 10 guys?”

Limongi, who left Burke after 16 years to become to new head coach at nearby Westside High School, still chats with Watts regularly. In interviews online, Limongi can be spotted in a Notre Dame hat courtesy of Watts.

He’s in the secondary instead of the slot and South Bend instead of Lincoln, but Watts is still busy making his home state proud.

“He’s just a guy that you can always count on to help others,” Limongi said. “And he was just an excellent example of what a student-athlete should be.”