Noie: Notre Dame cornerback Nick Watkins ready, waiting for work

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Making his first career start at Notre Dame Stadium in the season opener against Temple was everything that senior cornerback Nick Watkins thought it would be, until it wasn’t.

Back on the football field in a real game for the first time since his first start in the 2016 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl — a broken left arm during 2016 spring practice would cost him that entire following season — Watkins had earned the starting boundary corner spot opposite sophomore Julian Love during 2017 spring drills. He followed with a solid summer and became more of a leader on a defense that needed them.

Preseason camp offered Watkins additional confidence that he could play more of a role than at any other time in his collegiate career, one that had included a steady diet of special teams duties with an occasional defensive cameo as an underclassman.

When the opener arrived, the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Watkins was ready. He was part of the No. 1 defense. He was going to play his position to perfection. Or near it. He wouldn’t get beat deep, would attack any ball thrown his way and be a sure tackler.

This was it. His time.

Watkins was tested twice. He made one more tackle than the tuba player up in the stands with the band. One game. One tackle.

Had the stadium still held a natural grass surface, Watkins’ blue jersey and gold pants wouldn’t have needed washing. Everything would have looked brand new. No grass stains. No dirt. No sweat.

Watkins kept waiting for work that never really arrived.

“I was so anxious to get back out there and try and make plays,” he said. “I didn’t get a lot of work, but I expect that to change.”

Saturday was career start No. 2, so it’s not like Watkins’ name appeared high atop the opponent’s scouting report as someone they needed to avoid. He had eight total tackles and one pass breakup in the previous 23 games. He has no reputation — that can come later after four or five or six straight starts and some made plays. Why would Temple not try to test him on a deep ball or two?

“I don’t know what to say,” Watkins said.

That Temple decided to work away from Watkins also was a mystery to coach Brian Kelly. Maybe the Owls felt more comfortable in certain short field situations working Love's way. Throws away from Watkins were deemed safer. But little of it had to do with a notion that Watkins was in full shut-down mode.

Watkins Island? Not quite.

“Nick did a very good job, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t read too much into that he’s, you know, a lock-down corner,” Kelly said. “There’s no lock-down corners in football. They all can get beat.”

Any corner worth his scholarship believes he won’t be beat. Ever. So are lock-down corners indeed just a fantasy?

“That’s none of my business,” Watkins said with a laugh. “I can only control what I can control and that’s playing the type of football I can play and I’ve been playing since I was 5 (years old).”

 Older, wiser

Handling that light work load was a test for Watkins. If he wasn’t playing much in the past, his mind had a tendency to wander. Hard to concentrate when you’re playing, but not really playing. Just taking up space. But that can’t happen. Not this year.

Watkins is the oldest of the team’s eight cornerbacks. He’s got to be the one to set an example with his words and his actions. And his focus. Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght preaches as much in every position group meeting.

Stay focused.

Watkins stayed attention to detail Saturday, even when he wasn’t part of the detail.

“I feel like I’m good at focusing on what I can control,” he said.

Part of that entails being upbeat. In the meeting rooms. On the practice field. Watkins and his fellow corners might bust out in song one day. Dance the next. Anything to keep the mood to where they still understand it’s just a game. There comes a point where you have to play it and play it hard to play it well, but there’s also time to have fun.

Watkins has found that balance.

“Some days you don’t want to go out there, but you have to go out there and if you see one of your brothers (emotionally) down, you’ve got to pick them up,” he said. “Anything to keep the energy level high.”

When Watkins gets down, all he had to do is look at his chest for motivation. For the third time in his four seasons, he’s sporting a new jersey number. He started with No. 19, then switched to 21, in part as an ode to fellow Texas native and former Irish All-American cornerback Bobby Taylor. This season, he’s one of two No. 7s on the roster. Offensively, that number belongs to quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Defensively, it’s Watkins.

His older brother, Bobby, wore No. 7 at Central Arkansas.

“He’s always been one of my role models,” Watkins said. “This is for him.”

Watkins saw plenty he can improve on after watching Saturday’s film. Tighter coverage here out of that formation. Better run support there. Notre Dame’s offense racked up plenty of yards and scores and praise, but the defense? Watkins admits that the defense needs to be better heading into Saturday’s prime-time game against No. 15 Georgia at Notre Dame Stadium.

Georgia’s not Temple. Plays that the Owls couldn’t make for myriad reasons will be plays the Bulldogs make. Maybe with the run behind NFL-caliber backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Maybe with freshman quarterback Jacob Fromm making his first-ever start.

Everything Watkins and his defensive mates do Saturday needs to be on point. Better than they were last week.

“Georgia’s a great team,” he said. “They’re going to come up and play their best game. We’re looking forward to it.”

There’s been a buzz building for months about this one. Way back in early summer, this was the one game in college football that commanded the highest average ticket price of around $500. And that was three months ago. Tickets on StubHub were going Thursday anywhere from $599 to $1,000 each.

Georgia fans are expected to arrive from Atlanta and additional points south by the hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Watkins sensed something different earlier in the week on campus about this one. Every home game is special. There’s only seven in a year. But this one’s got a little more. Maybe a lot.

Because of the buildup. Because of the opponent. Because of both teams being 1-0. Because it’s going to unfold under the lights. On national television.

Maybe just because.

Watkins is ready. Again. His first-ever night game as a starter. His second chance this season to make a first impression.

“This is going to be a great challenge for us,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame senior cornerback Nick Watkins made his first regular-season start against Temple, but barely contributed with only one tackle. That, he knows, will change. Soon. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)