Nick Watkins finally turning the corner, ascending at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nick Watkins never looked at it as a lost season, even though the Notre Dame cornerback’s circumstances were telling him otherwise.

And it wasn’t just that the stream of bone scans and X-rays last summer and fall kept giving the DeSoto, Texas, product perpetual contradictory news from his original prognosis.

A gaggle of young cornerback prodigies collectively concocted an impressive growth spurt once coordinator Brian VanGorder was purged a third of the way through the 2016 season, while a slow-healing broken bone in Watkins’ upper left arm kept him rooted as a cheerleader/unofficial student assistant coach, unable to keep pace with them.

By the time the senior-to-be last week was ready for full-speed, full-contact workouts for the first time in almost a calendar year, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr., all had more robust résumés than Watkins’ modest eight career tackles.

Then Watkins surged. And creeping up on midway through spring practice — the exact point in which the 6-foot-1, 203-pounder’s medical problems started last year — the Dallas Bishop Dunne High School product is arguably Notre Dame’s most impressive ascender this spring on either side of the ball.

“He had a really terrific offseason in the weight room,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Watkins, who has been running with the first team defense on the position group with the most quality depth.

“And you can see his transition out of his break, breaking on the ball, playing physical at the line of scrimmage.”

Add junior starter Shaun Crawford back in after season-ending Achilles tendon surgery last fall, and you could see why new defensive coordinator Mike Elko felt confident enough to let his cadre of cornerbacks dwindle to five, with juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White shifting to safety and Devin Butler taking a grad transfer to Syracuse.

Crawford is way ahead of schedule in terms of his rehab, going through most drills this spring but staying out of the contact periods as a precautionary measure. That mix is enough, though, for him to metabolize Elko’s new 4-2-5 defensive scheme.

The trajectory, if it holds, would have Crawford and Watkins starting the opener Sept. 2 against Temple, with plenty of roles for the superb sophs.

“This new defense is fun,” Watkins offered. “It’s designed for us to make plays. It’s designed for us to run around freely and be who we are, be who Notre Dame recruited us to be.”

Watkins was recruited to be an elite cornerback, as his college offer lists suggests. It included the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas and USC.

But his freshman year was burned on little more than blocking on kickoff returns and running down on kickoff coverage, and he had zero tackles — zero statistics of any kind, actually — to show for it. That weighed heavily on Kelly’s mind in 2016 when he was considering whether five or six games of Watkins was worth using up another season of eligibility.

“We played him as a freshman and probably my fault that we didn’t utilize him properly as a freshman,” Kelly said upon deciding last midseason to eventually apply for a medical redshirt year. “I don’t want to do that to the kid again.”

Watkins was in lockstep with that decision, though his arm’s protracted recovery later made the decision moot.

“It was just an awkward situation freshman year,” Watkins said. “It is what it is. I’ve got two more years. So it worked out.”

Former Notre Dame defensive analyst Jeff Burris, now a full-time, on-field assistant at Northern Iowa, saw incredible potential amidst the pedestrian sophomore-year statistics for Watkins.

Watkins’ only career start came in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State at the end of the 2015 season after first starter KeiVarae Russell and then replacement Butler went down with injuries.

Burris, a former Irish All-America defensive back, pored through the tape from the 2015 season after taking the analyst job in January of 2016.

“I thought Nick Watkins was a freaking elite defensive back,” Burris said. “I have a lot of respect for Nick Watkins. I think he can be an upper-echelon type of corner in college football.

“I texted (DBs coach) Todd (Lyght), and I’m like, ‘Who is 21?’ He can press. He plays with good body balance. He has length and he plays the ball well in the air. That’s what you want from a secondary guy.

“He had great body position every time, and he was getting in and out of his breaks in press. I know Todd will take him to that next level. I truly believe he can be the next great Notre Dame DB that comes out of South Bend.”

So does Watkins, who has since traded in that No. 21 jersey and now shares No. 7 with No. 1 quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

“At this position, you’ve got to have confidence,’ Watkins said. “And I always felt like I was the best corner in the room from the time I came here. All I needed was an opportunity.”

The opportunity has arrived, and Elko, for one, has helped Watkins take advantage of it.

“What I think Mike does really well is we all have strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said. “And so he has a great eye of saying, ‘Let’s take Nick’s strengths and put them in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a (good) position.’

“Maybe we’re not a right and left corner team. Maybe we’re a short-field, wide-field team. And let’s apply them in that fashion. Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths.”

Watkins first had to show a strength for patience and perseverance. He learned it from his father, Bobby Watkins Sr., who was a standout college defensive back at Texas State and later played for the Detroit Lions from 1982-88.

“It hurt not being out there with the guys,” Nick Watkins said, “but I talked my dad and we just talked about what my goals were and not letting this set me back and just keeping my eyes on the prize, really.

“It was a challenge, but I just stayed positive, knowing that my arm would heal, putting my trust in God that he would heal me. So here I am.”

Notre Dame cornerback Nick Watkins has made the most of his opportunities this spring after missing the 2016 season with a slow-healing broken arm. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)