Nick Watkins leads 7 reserves who could uplift Notre Dame in the fall

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nick Watkins’ uniform number change this spring was sort of random and sort of not.

The Notre Dame sophomore-to-be cornerback traded in his freshman 19 jersey for a newly available 21 for supposedly no reason other than it was available and it was symbolic of a fresh start.

“No significance,” he insisted, before adding, “Bobby Taylor did wear it, so we’ll see.”

Taylor was a Notre Dame All-America cornerback two decades before Watkins migrated north to ND from Dallas, about a two-hour drive west of where Taylor first caught then-Irish head coach Lou Holtz’s eye, in Longview.

Geography and big aspirations may have been two of the few things the former 10-year NFL veteran had in common with Watkins, though, as freshmen. Watkins’ long arms, fluid motion and raw speed encouraged current Irish head coach Brian Kelly and staff that the Bishop Dunne High product might find a meaningful role in 2014.

And Watkins did play in 11 games last season, though mostly on special teams and without recording a single tackle, interception or pass breakup.

All of which made his past spring ascent all the more scintillating

By the end of the 15 spring sessions, Watkins had pulled even with junior-to-be Devin Butler as the No. 1 cornerback opposite returning standout Cole Luke. That status is sure to change this summer, when academic exile KeiVarae Russell rejoins the active roster for the first time since Aug. 15.

That confluence of events helps make the 6-foot, 200-pounder one of seven key reserves who, with a strong summer, could alter both his own and Notre Dame’s 2015 destiny for the better.

A strong, dependable third corner not only would give the Irish protection against injury, but flexibility in its nickel and dime packages.

“Nick Watkins made the progress individually that we were hoping that he’d make,” Kelly said. “He’s got a lot more confidence and (is) certainly somebody we feel like is going to be able to contribute to our football team next year.”

Russell’s return should help Watkins in fulfilling that projection. The two were roommates last summer and in the first couple of weeks of training camp before Russell was pulled from practice, and ultimately all 13 Irish games, when he became part of the school’s academic dishonesty investigation.

While they were together, Watkins said they’d stay after practice every day to work and stay up late at night with Russell helping the young corner absorb coordinator Brian VanGorder’s intricate and freshman-unfriendly playbook.

“I’m excited for him to come back, so we can get back to it,” Watkins said.

Without Russell around, Watkins leaned on his father, Bobby Watkins Sr., for wise words to help jump-start his spring. The elder Watkins played defensive back collegiately at Texas State (then Southwest Texas State) and for seven seasons with the Detroit Lions after the team drafted him in the second round.

“He said, ‘Son, I’ve been watching you since you were little, so just go out there and let you be you,’ ” the younger Watkins related. “I really just started to apply that this spring, and then you saw the results.”

The biggest change was confidence. Watkins said first-year defensive backs coach Todd Lyght was a key figure in helping that grow, a refrain echoed by a number of ND’s safeties and corners this spring.

And yet some of what Lyght and VanGorder had Watkins do repeatedly this spring might seem counterproductive to a confidence boost. They lined him up against ND’s fastest and most accomplished receiver, junior-to-be Will Fuller, early and often.

It was Fuller who scorched Watkins in one-on-one coverage in the April 18 Blue-Gold Game on a 68-yard TD connection from quarterback Malik Zaire.

Watkins did record four tackles in the spring finale, a half tackle for loss and a pass breakup.

“Our receiving corps is amazing,” Watkins said. “I mean just going up against them every day, I feel like we have every type of receiver, so you know what to expect when facing another opponent.”

ND’s next opponent — Texas, on Sept. 5 in prime time at Notre Dame Stadium — isn’t any opponent. It’s the school Watkins followed growing up and one that went after him hard in recruiting.

‘It’s a great school, and coach (Charlie) Strong is a great coach,” said Watkins, rated a four-star prospect in high school by with offers also from Alabama, Florida State, Auburn, Ohio State, LSU and USC, among others. “I just felt Notre Dame was the best place for me.”

The following are the other six key reserves who this summer could raise their personal ceilings and that of the Irish this fall.

Nyles Morgan, linebacker, sophomore-to-be: Morgan worked with the 1s at middle linebacker for most of spring — exactly where he left off on the depth chart last December — but as a more confident and competent version of himself.

Still, if reigning 2014 MVP Joe Schmidt, coming back from a broken fibula, returns to form as expected and 2013 starter Jarrett Grace’s already-remarkable recovery from a career-threatening injury accelerates in the summer, Morgan will become a nice safety net and will have the luxury of developing at a more deliberate pace.

The coaches won’t know until August, though, what they have physically in the two fifth-year seniors. It’s as possible that Grace could start as he could end up a situational player. It’s also possible Schmidt could be physically compromised, though his recovery so far is on track.

In the best-case scenario there will be a glut of talent at the two inside linebacker positions, with the coaches then having the option to move weakside linebacker Jaylon Smith outside whenever the occasion calls for it.

Morgan, who had 47 tackles in a turbulent freshman season, in which he was forced into action before he was ready, needs to be ready this fall for the worst-case scenario and to build toward his future as a starter and possibly a standout at the position.

Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end, sophomore-to-be: Trumbetti logged some valuable time as a true freshman in 2014, with 5.5 of his 21 tackles going for losses and adding five QB hurries.

He couldn’t overtake senior-to-be Romeo Okwara this spring, but Trumbetti played well enough where he’s now the top backup option at both defensive end spots.

That role takes on heightened importance if 2014 projected starter Ishaq Williams’ desire to be reinstated by Notre Dame and the NCAA is derailed in the coming weeks and months.

Alex Bars, offensive guard/tackle, sophomore-to-be: Bars is the player in this group with the clearest path to a starting berth. He battled classmate Quenton Nelson to a standoff at the open left guard spot, a competition that won’t be resolved until August.

If Nelson emerges, Bars will likely cross-train at both guard and tackle, and join the starting five as a tackle in 2016 after Ronnie Stanley heads to the NFL.

His value in 2015 would seem to be at its maximum as a guy who could be a strong backup at guard and tackle in case of injury, with his strong suit being technically sound, especially against shifting defensive fronts,

Greg Bryant, running back, junior-to-be: C.J Prosise’s shockingly smooth transition to a hybrid running back/wide receiver in the spring, stole a little bit of Bryant’s thunder.

It seems unfathomable that the former five-star recruit would be sitting on 303 career yards (on 57 carries) halfway through his career. To his credit, Bryant typically responds well to competition, to adversity, to doubts and whispers from the outside and channels that into improved focus and performance.

That combined with unmistakable talent could still make him a wild card in both the running game and in the return game.

Torii Hunter, wide receiver, junior-to-be: The son of the Minnesota Twins outfielder with the same name tried his hand at baseball this spring for the first time since his junior year at Prosper (Texas) High School.

The former Detroit Tigers draftee (36th round, 2013) has been mostly a bystander in resurgent ND’s run to likely its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006, with one at-bat and three cameos in the first 41 games of the season for the Irish (28-13).

That was how his football career started as well, though injuries were a large factor. The 6-foot, 190-pounder is 100 percent healthy now for the first time in his career.

And Prosise’s success at running back could open the door for Hunter to share playing time at slot receiver, if not push incumbent Amir Carlisle for the starting spot.

Drue Tranquill, sophomore-to-be, safety: Tranquill recorded his first career interception shortly after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a 31-28 loss to Louisville on Nov. 22.

“We thought he pinched the fat pad on his knee,” Kelly said three days after the fact. “He played the second half on it. That's how strong he is — hamstring and quad area is so strong that he passed his ACL test. Then he comes in on Sunday and he's swollen. We're like, ‘We need an MRI.’ ”

Tranquill was ND’s most impactful and versatile freshman on defense in 2014. He was held out of contact drills in the spring as a precautionary measure while fellow safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield enjoyed dramatically bounce-back springs.

The 6-foot, 225-pound Tranquill provides depth at both safety positions and could press Shumate in August. But his future is just as intriguing and promising playing in the box as an outside linebacker. He’s also one of the team’s most potent pass-rushers.

The only thing that blurs his road ahead are the many options, not concerns.

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Nick Watkins (21) lines up on Irish standout wide receiver Will Fuller during Notre Dame's Blue-Gold Game on April 18. That difficult matchup during the spring helped Watkins elevate his game. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)