Notre Dame CB Nick Watkins prepares to spread wings in senior season
CULVER, Ind. — Why do we fall?
And how do we respond?
Nick Watkins’ plummet came without warning. After making his first career start in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1, 2016, the 6-foot-1, 207-pound cornerback entered spring practices with his eyes set on a starting position. Instead, the then-junior corner fractured his left humerus — the bone that runs between the shoulder and elbow — in April 2016, simultaneously stalling his ascendance and further weakening a vulnerable Irish secondary.
At first, doctors estimated Watkins would be back for summer workouts in mid-June. Those came and went.
Then, he hoped to be ready for the beginning of fall camp. No such luck.
“I thought I was going to be back by (the 2016 season opener at) Texas,” said Watkins — a native of DeSoto, Texas. “I thought I was going to sit out maybe the first week and a half (of fall camp) and then the X-ray would say that I could go back out there and play. But obviously that didn’t happen.”
Instead, Watkins’ humerus took longer than expected to heal, and he missed the entirety of Notre Dame’s defensively (and objectively) disappointing 4-8 season.
When spring practice began, nearly a year after he suffered the injury, Watkins returned with a similar skill set, but an unmistakably altered perspective.
“At the start of spring, after we got the first practice out of the way and I got those first few snaps, I felt pretty good. My confidence level was high,” Watkins said. “It was just fun to be back out there. I found the fun of the game again.”
Now — in the cornerback room, especially — the fun is easy to identify.
“We call ourselves ‘The Justice League.’ We’re all close,” Watkins said. “(Cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght) is Lex Luthor. I’m Batman. (Sophomore corner) Julian Love is Aquaman. We’re just making it fun.
“Honestly, that’s what this game’s about. It’s a game. It’s fun. We’re going to take it seriously, but we’re also going to have fun out here. We’re going to celebrate.”
In some ways, the comparisons between Watkins and billionaire crime-fighter Bruce Wayne are appropriate. Like Wayne, Watkins looks up to his father — former NFL cornerback-turned Dallas police officer Bobby Watkins Sr. And like Wayne, he stumbled, then gradually learned to respond.
Early in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 film “Batman Begins,” a young Bruce Wayne accidentally tumbles down a bat-infested well on the family’s property. After being rescued, his father, Thomas Wayne, delivers both a literal and symbolic lesson.
“Took quite a fall, didn’t we, Master Bruce?” the family’s famously beloved butler, Alfred Pennyworth, inquires.
“And why do we fall, Bruce?” Thomas Wayne asks. “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Now, with the broken wing behind him, Batman is just beginning.
“It was definitely tough, but I just stayed positive,” Watkins said. “If I didn’t stay positive I probably wouldn’t be out here, to be honest. I am where I am today because of God, my family, my friends and my coaches.
“That break made me realize how much I love the game and how much I missed the game and just to have fun with it. You never know which snap could be your last, so I just try to have fun with it every day.”
These days, there’s plenty of fun to be had. Watkins — who has made eight tackles in 23 career games — is the elder statesman of the Irish cornerbacks room, expected to contribute significantly in his long-awaited return to action. Alongside him, junior Shaun Crawford (who is also bouncing back from two season-ending injuries) and sophomores Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. combine to form one of the more promising cornerback groups in recent memory.
And if the Justice League has a leader (besides Luthor, of course), it’s Gotham’s Dark Knight.
“Nick Watkins, I thought was outstanding this summer,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “(He) really did a great job in terms of coming up and leading in a number of different phases.”
“We’re not where we want to be, but I don’t think we have a ceiling,” Watkins said of the Irish corners. “I think we can be as good as we want to be. As a group we just need to focus and come out here and compete every day.”
That competition isn’t always easy, especially considering the laundry list of capable Irish receivers. Juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin and sophomore Chase Claypool provide tall, athletic targets for junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Graduate transfers Freddy Canteen and Cameron Smith deliver bursts of blazing speed.
Throughout the first week of fall camp, Notre Dame's cornerbacks have won reps and lost them.
But why do we fall?
“Obviously there are ups and downs, but it’s just how we fight through it,” Watkins said. “We’ve got to be gritty every day. We might give up some things, but we have to come back and make plays.”