Notre Dame's Nick Watkins aims to reclaim starting job

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Three words from Bobby Watkins sparked something inside his son.

They came last fall, late in junior cornerback Nick Watkins’ second uneventful season at Notre Dame. Buried on the depth chart, without a collegiate start to his name, Nick called his father — a former Detroit Lion corner with 20 career interceptions — in need of some soothing advice.

“It was probably about an hour or two,” Nick recalled on Friday, a day before breaking his left arm in Notre Dame's eighth practice of the spring. “We talked about everything from when I got here to where I was at that point, and just about life. It was one of those heart-to-hearts with your parents.

“He said, ‘It’s on you, what you want to be.’ I took that to heart. That’s still in the back of my mind. Every day I go out, it’s on me. Every rep, it’s on me.”

In meetings. In practices. In games.

It’s on you.

Watkins took accountability for his game. And when KeiVarae Russell fractured his tibia against Boston College on Nov. 21, then Devin Butler broke his foot in the week leading up to the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, Watkins finally heard those elusive, magic words.

“I think every athlete knows that when coach (Brian) Kelly says, ‘You’re starting,’ the confidence has to go up,” Watkins said with a widening grin. “You can’t go out there and be scared, be soft. When you hear ‘starting’ by your name, this is what you come to play Notre Dame football for.

“You don’t come here just to be happy to be on the team. No. You come here to be a player for Notre Dame and compete for a national championship.”

Watkins’ first career start, fittingly enough, came against Ohio State — the reigning national champions. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound corner from DeSoto, Texas, struggled at times, but he held his own. He finished with three tackles and a pass break up that prevented what would have been a touchdown. And as the game bled on, his confidence continued to grow.

“It was a huge step, playing in the Fiesta Bowl and that being my first start,” he said. “After that game, I felt like there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do. I can’t hold myself back. I feel like I can go out there and just have fun.”

The only thing holding Watkins back this spring is his body. During Saturday's practice, the junior broke his left humerus — the bone that connects the shoulder to the elbow. He underwent surgery on Saturday night, according to a university release, and is expected to be available for summer workouts in mid-June.

And when he returns, Watkins will have plenty of company.

Russell is gone, and Watkins, senior Devin Butler and sophomores Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman are all angling to fill his shoes. Senior Cole Luke is the position’s seasoned veteran. This summer, freshmen Troy Pride Jr., Donte Vaughn and Julian Love also join the fray.

There’s an abundance of competition among the cornerbacks, and that dynamic should breed success.

“We go out every day and just challenge each other,” Watkins said prior to his injury. “We encourage each other, but at the same time we know that every rep is a competition. Every play is a competition. You need to bring your ‘A’ game every day, and there can’t be a drop off.”

If there is, Todd Lyght lets them hear it. That was certainly the case on Friday morning, as Notre Dame’s cornerbacks — most vocally, Watkins — struggled to fight through blocks and disrupt opponent screens.

“Quit playing so soft!” Lyght, Notre Dame’s second-year defensive backs coach, yelled.

“Take your game to the next level!”

“You have to be more physical!”

Lyght’s tough love rang loudly through the Loftus Center, and Watkins responded. The junior cornerback ran with sophomore wide receiver Miles Boykin along the sideline, suffocating the lanky receiver as the football whizzed harmlessly over his head.

“Nice job, 2-1!” Lyght shouted.

“Easy money,” Watkins responded.

He picked himself up. Every rep, it’s on you.

“That’s just coach Lyght,” Watkins said. “You can’t change his coaching style. But he’s a great coach. He’s going to yell at you when you’re down, but that’s what your teammates are for — to lift you back up. Then you just have to go out and make plays. You can’t dwell on it. You just have to think about the next play.”

Now, Watkins needs to pick himself up again. Saturday's injury is a setback, but it shouldn't be an excuse.

“In my mind, I’m a starter,” Watkins said. “That’s just how I feel. That’s the confidence you need to have to play this position. I just feel like I’m a starter. I feel like I’m my only competition. I’ve failed myself if I’m not starting against Texas.”

My only competition.

A photo posted by Nicholas C. Watkins (@nicholympus_) on Apr 1, 2016 at 4:24pm PDT

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Notre Dame cornerback Nick Watkins, who made his first career start against Ohio State in last season's Fiesta Bowl, will miss the remainder of spring practice with a broken arm. (Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)