'Project' time over for Notre Dame CB Nick Watkins

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Practice can be an acquired taste for some football players.

There are those who take longer than others to convince of its significance.

Nick Watkins can be pigeon-holed into that ilk. Why practice? Only the games count, right?

“Practice was never my thing (in high school),” said Notre Dame’s 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore cornerback from DeSoto, Texas, near Dallas. “I was always a ‘game’ type of guy. At this level, you can’t just be a ‘game’ guy. Everybody’s good. That’s what I’m learning.”

He learned that lesson the hard way. Two years of being relegated to special teams duty, with only cameos within the framework of the defense, led to a bubbling cauldron of frustration.

“It has been frustrating, at times,” Watkins said. “I’m not used to sitting down, being on the sidelines. That’s just what comes with playing at a big school like Notre Dame. It’s a great school. It’s all about patience and timing.”

“I’ve been a Nick Watkins fan,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “I don’t think he’s been a great practice player. He’s been a spotty practice player. He’s been a guy who would make a play, then not show up a little bit. That’s just maturity.

“When I see him, and I see him a lot in one-on-ones (passing drills), I love his length, I like his competitiveness, and he’s 200 pounds. I like that in a corner.

“When the lights go on, he’s going to do very well.”

Well, ready or not, the lights are going on Friday. Watkins has been deemed the “next next man in” at corner. When Devin Butler, who was filling in for the injured KeiVarae Russell, went down with a foot injury earlier this week, it was Watkins who got the call.

Since he arrived on campus as a four-star prospect, Watkins has been a project for the Irish secondary. When Notre Dame takes on Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, the progress of that project will be measured.

Wednesday, in his first opportunity in the college football spotlight, Watkins at first seemed a bit ill at ease — fidgeting, and being very “team-first'' correct in his answers — but was finally able to loosen up and handle the attention of the Fiesta Bowl Media Day.

That’ll be nothing compared to what Ohio State will throw his way.

The Buckeyes, with Ezekiel Elliott carrying the load at running back, normally aren’t inclined to throw the ball that often (25 passes a game). However, with a sophomore about to see his first significant action at corner, odds are they might be tempted to see of what he’s made.

“I’m ready to go out there and compete at the highest level,” Watkins said. “It’s going to be a tough game. (Ohio State has) great athletes, but that’s what this level’s about.

“Ezekiel Elliott is a great running back. We’ve gotta get the guy on the ground. It’s not just the front seven, it’s the secondary that has to come up and support, too.

“We also know that they’re going to take their shots (with long passes). We have to be ready when that time comes.”

Timing is everything. Opportunity sometimes doesn’t come with a second chance. Cole Luke, who will start at the other corner Friday, made sure Watkins understood the significance of what’s about to happen.

“‘This is what you’ve waited for. This is why you came here,’” Luke said of his message to Watkins. “I was talking to him the other day, ‘You’ve waited for this moment for so long. Are you going to let it slip? Are you going to capitalize on it?’

“I have complete confidence in him. I know that he will show up on Friday. I’m not worried about him.”

In two seasons, while appearing in 22 games, Watkins has just five tackles. His big game was three stops in the blowout of UMass.

“Just looking up to the older guys (helped develop a work ethic in practice),” Watkins said. “You can’t just come in, make a play, then take two (plays) off. You can’t be inconsistent. At this level, the way you practice is the way you play. You have to take practice seriously.

“You can’t just go through the motions. That’s what I’m still learning. Being a young player, you have to learn to practice.

“It takes a lot of hard work and determination (to survive at Notre Dame). You can’t give up when things don’t go your way. When they sit you down, it’s just how you respond. That’s still what I’m learning: To respond, and be a great player for this team.”

It’s not like Watkins is going through this present journey alone. His father, Bobby Watkins, Sr., blazed a trail for his son. Bobby, also a defensive back, was a second-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 1982 out of Southwest Texas (now Texas State). From 1982-88 Bobby had 20 interceptions and recovered six fumbles.

“That had a big impact,” he said of having a father who played in The League. “I knew my goals. As soon as I touched a football, I knew I wanted to be like him. That’s still my goal today.”

Friday will mark the first significant step toward that goal.

“I wouldn’t say nervous, I’d say anxious; anxious to get out there and play since I haven’t in a while,” Watkins said. “I have to step up. I want to be a great teammate and a great player for this team. It’ll take a couple drives (to feel comfortable), since I haven’t been out there.”

“Nick is more of a reserved, quiet guy,” Luke said. “I’m sure that’s how it will be leading up. Once he makes that first play, there’s no controlling him.”

Time for that practice to finally pay off.

Notre Dame cornerback Nick Watkins (center) looks to get up to speed for his first collegiate start, Friday in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., against Ohio State. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)