Notre Dame CB Nick Watkins stays silent on NFL future with Citrus Bowl ahead

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Nick Watkins had a heap of answers to the same basic question.

Will the 6-foot-1, 207-pound senior cornerback return to Notre Dame for a fifth season, or enter the 2018 NFL Draft?

“I thought about it, but I’m only focusing on beating LSU,” Watkins said last week, repeating the company line. “That’s a decision that I’ll make after the game.”

But has he considered that this might be his final game in an Irish uniform?

“I just take it one game at a time.”

But can he elaborate at all? Not even a hint?

“We’ll see,” Watkins said with a wry grin. “I’m just focusing on winning that game.”

Watkins deflected passes as deftly as he did questions in his senior season. The DeSoto, Texas, product played in 11 games, starting nine of them, and recorded 27 tackles with eight pass breakups and one interception. That’s all despite a recurring case of knee tendinitis that flared up and limited the senior in the final third of No. 14 Notre Dame’s 9-3 regular season.

Of course, for Watkins specifically, adversity is nothing new. Notre Dame’s most veteran cornerback played in a reserve role in his first two seasons in South Bend, then was forced to miss the 2016 season with a slow-healing broken arm.

So, given his recent past, that nagging tendinitis may be an unwelcome pest — but it’s something he’s been acutely prepared to deal with.

“It’s definitely frustrating. But that’s all that it is,” Watkins said. “You just have to work through it. I’ve been working through a lot of things since I’ve been here. It’s been up and down, but you have to persevere.”

Perseverance has been a common theme in Notre Dame’s cornerbacks room. Through lost seasons and frustrating spells, Watkins has found common ground with junior corner Shaun Crawford, who missed most — if not all — of his first two seasons with a torn ACL and a torn Achilles.

“With me and Crawf', we’ve been through similar battles — season-ending injuries,” Watkins said. “We keep each other up. We’re the oldest guys in that corner room. Me and Crawford are best of friends. We just try to lift each other up, hype each other up.”

They’ve got (at least) one more game to do that. Maybe more, but Watkins isn’t talking.

He will say, though, that confidence isn’t an issue — no matter the size of the stage.

“Always,” the cornerback said, when asked if he believes he can compete in the NFL. “That’s always been my confidence level since I was little. I always felt like I could play at the next level.”

But that’s in the future, no matter how near or far. First, Watkins — who reports that his tendinitis has subsided — gets to showcase his talents in the Citrus Bowl on Monday against No. 16 LSU (9-3). He gets to test his mettle against an SEC opponent currently ranked No. 16 nationally in passing efficiency but just 85th in passing yards per game (201.3). He gets to size up LSU senior and former Purdue quarterback Danny Etling, who has thrown 14 touchdown passes this season with just two interceptions.

He gets to deflect a few more passes.

Then maybe, some answers will come.

“We didn’t like the way the season ended,” Watkins said. “But we get to go out and prove ourselves one more time.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Nick Watkins (7) celebrates following the 49-14 win over Southern California in an NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: No 14 Notre Dame (9-3) vs. No. 16 LSU (9-3)

KICKOFF: Monday at 1 p.m. EST

WHERE: Camping World Stadium; Orlando, Fla.

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: LSU by 3