'Grandpa Nick' Watkins bolsters crowded Notre Dame cornerback competition

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nick Watkins is much too young to be a grandfather.

Notre Dame’s resident old-timer is a crotchety, crusty 22-year-old cornerback, a fifth-year senior his teammates lovingly refer to as “Uncle Nick” or “Grandpa Nick.” To the Irish players, it’s laughable.

To Todd Lyght, it’s a little alarming.

“Actually today his back was a little bit tight. It’s funny, because the guys call him an old man,” said Lyght, Notre Dame’s former All-American cornerback-turned cornerbacks coach. “It’s funny to hear the kids say that because he’s like 21, 22 years old.

“I’m just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m 49.’ ”

Somehow, all these years later, Lyght is still here.

And so is Watkins.

The latter fact, of course, was far from guaranteed. Late in the 2017 season, Watkins — who started nine games last fall and compiled 29 tackles, eight pass break ups and an interception against USC — was abruptly moved from the field to the boundary cornerback spot and stashed behind sophomore standout Julian Love.

This spring, he’s battling primarily with Love at boundary, while senior Shaun Crawford and juniors Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn duke it out at field. In June, four more highly touted freshmen — Noah Boykin, D.J. Brown, Tariq Bracy and Joe Wilkins Jr. — will join the already-crowded cornerback competition.

In short, playing time wasn’t easy to come by last November, and there’s no guarantee Watkins will earn more this September.

So why stay? Why not graduate, transfer and slide into an immediate starting position somewhere else?

“I wasn’t reaching out to (other) coaches,” Watkins said. “I just sat back, evaluated myself, evaluated what I could bring to the team … and I’m here.”

He’s still here, still fighting, still competing.

Only now, he’s also leading.

“The competition is steep,” Watkins said. “Everybody is going out there and working, doing what they need to do and just taking it day-by-day. But we’re also all helping each other.

“If we see something with technique or something like that we’re going to speak up. That’s just being a better leader, expecting more of myself and expecting more of my teammates as well.”

In its second season in new defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s defensive scheme, more is expected from a rapidly maturing Irish defense. More than the 10 interceptions Notre Dame produced last year. More than the 24 sacks and 79 tackles for loss.

More, too, from the cornerbacks, especially their not-so-crotchety veteran leader.

“He’s doing a great job because he’s one of the only corners that goes back and forth from field to the boundary. That’s how valuable he is,” Lyght said. “I move him back and forth and let him get a lot of reps.

“What I want our guys to understand is, even though only two guys can come out onto the field if we’re in base (defense), or three if we’re in nickel, I want them all to see themselves as a starter. So I like to rotate them both with the first and second team, so they get the feel of being a starter.”

Watkins — who started one game in his first two seasons, before missing the entirety of 2016 with a broken arm — is chasing that familiar feeling.

But that’s not all he’s chasing. It’s not the only reason he’s still here.

“I wanted to come back for my guys,” Watkins said. “This is the place where it all started. I feel like we can win a national championship here.”

Daly lands in Dallas

Scott Daly — who served as Notre Dame’s starting long snapper from 2013 through 2016 — announced on Twitter on Monday that he has signed with the Dallas Cowboys, home of former Irish teammates Zack Martin, Jaylon Smith and Jarron Jones.

Daly — a 6-2, 250-pound native of Downers Grove, Ill. — did not appear on an NFL roster throughout the 2017 season.

“Would like to thank my family, friends and everyone who have helped me reach this point in my journey!” Daly tweeted. “All glory to God! #CowboysNation”. 574-235-6428 Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Nick Watkins (7) celebrates following the win over Southern California last October at Notre Dame Stadium.