Watts lights up his Notre Dame future with willingness to make a move — or two

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts warms during his days as a wide receiver, and before switching uniform numbers, during a 2020 Irish football practice at the Irish Athletics Center.

SOUTH BEND — Two in-season position changes for Xavier Watts came without warning and very little explanation.

So the wide receiver-turned rover-turned safety turned to the king of position switches — convalescing, grad senior wide receiver Avery Davis — for a little perspective.

“I looked to him as one of my big brothers,” the 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore said Tuesday as the fifth-ranked Irish (11-1) continued preparations for their Jan. 1 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl date with No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) in Glendale, Ariz.

“So, as soon as (the position switches) happened, I started talking to him as much as possible. He gave me great advice. He helped me get through it. 

“(And that was), ‘Really just keep working. Just show what you can do, no matter where you are. You’re a really good athlete. You’re going to ball out no matter where.’

“So I just took that as a compliment and took it and ran with it.”

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Watts’ five-game run at the safety position has been impressive enough that he could end up as a starter in 2022, with 11 tackles in his past four games as a reserve. For now, he’ll be in the four-man playing rotation for the Fiesta Bowl with three other position-switchers — converted cornerbacks Ramon Henderson, Houston Griffith and DJ Brown.

Junior safety Kyle Hamilton, a consensus All-American who hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury on Oct. 23, has opted out of playing in the bowl game.

“Kyle Hamilton goes down, and we say, ‘Hey, we don't need to wait ‘til next year to play (Watts) at safety. We have to move him now.’” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Wednesday. “He has some natural abilities. He showed it in the Navy game. That's when I first noticed it.

“His ability to get off blocks, his ability to make plays. And I’m like, ‘Not everybody on our team can do that.’ I want people to understand, I don't care about scheme as much as that guy just beat that block and made that tackle.

“We don't have a whole bunch of guys that have shown the ability to do that. He's still learning the position. He's still getting better, but he has some natural instincts. He's suited just fine to play safety for us."

Not that he couldn’t help the Irish at wide receiver.

Xavier Watts makes a catch during Notre Dame football practice Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 at the Irish Athletic Complex in South Bend.

Notre Dame heads into the bowl game with just five healthy scholarship receivers, three of whom are freshmen. Davis — a former quarterback, cornerback and running back — was part of the attrition when he suffered a season-ending knee injury Nov. 6 in a 34-6 win over Navy. 

“Not going to lie, a little bit,” Watts said when he saw the wide receiver numbers wane and wondered if that might not be his best option, to return to the offense.

“But it was kind of like, I don’t know how to explain it. I was already over at safety and just switching back and forth would have been too much. I enjoy playing safety. It’s been pretty fun.”

Several schools recruited Watts out of Omaha (Neb.) Burke High as an “athlete” — capable of playing multiple positions — but he said Iowa State was the only school that really emphasized defense-first in its recruiting pitch.

Watts and vaunted receiver prospect Jordan Johnson both signed with ND in the 2020 recruiting cycle, then became mostly bystanders during the 2020 season. Each saw action in two games. Neither registered so much as a single reception.

Johnson transferred to UCF in May. He played in four games as a reserve for the Knights (8-4) this season and was still looking for his first career reception heading into Thursday night’s Gasparilla Bowl matchup with Florida.

Watts admitted to being frustrated, but stayed. He was making progress toward cracking the wide receiver rotation in fall camp this past August when a hamstring injury halted his ascent.

“I think for every guy it’s probably pretty frustrating not playing right away,” Watts said, “but sometimes people aren’t ready. You’ve just got to trust the process and really just wait your turn.”

NOTRE DAME VS. OKLAHOMA STATE 

What: PlayStation Fiesta Bowl 

Who:  No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) 

Kickoff: Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. EST 

Where: State Farm Stadium; Glendale, Ariz. 

TV: ESPN 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 2 

Watts didn’t play in ND’s 41-38 overtime win at Florida State on Sept. 5, but moved to rover the next week when there was a run of season-ending injuries at the linebacker position group in late August/early September (Marist Liufau, Shayne Simon and Paul Moala).

“I was a little hesitant about it, because rover’s like a linebacker position,” Watts said. “But I was willing to help. People were down, and I was just excited to play, stepping out there, just ready to go. 

“It was cool to switch over to defense to get a new perspective on things.”

Five weeks later, during Notre Dame’s bye week, Watts switched again — to safety.

“We had been trying to get X (on defense) for a long time,” ND safeties coach Chris O’Leary said. “(Wide receivers coach) Del (Alexander) and those guys fought us on it. Once we had those injuries, coach (Brian) Kelly was on board.

“He felt like he wanted to get X on the field somewhere. So that’s kind of how we made the move there.”

Honing his technique and footwork have been the two biggest areas of emphasis for Watts during bowl prep. Brown has been particularly helpful with both.

“Taking better angles and stuff,” Watts said. “Just getting more adjusted to like the technical stuff of playing safety instead of just going out there and just running.”

Watts did get matched up in practice once this month with Notre Dame All-America tight end Michael Mayer, all 6-5, 265 pounds of him.  

“I can see why people have trouble covering him in the real games,” Watts said. “He’s pretty fast for a tight end and a big body, so it was good. I had good coverage on him.”

But then he smiled and revealed Mayer wasn’t thrown the ball on the play.

If Watts continues to rise as a safety, there will be more practice challenges from Mayer in the future. And suddenly that future looks oh so promising, even if Watts himself doesn’t want to look too far ahead.

“I believe in my talents,” he said. “I’m a confident player. We’ll see what happens, I guess. I’m just trying to take it day by day and just go as hard as I can. Show what I can do.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI