Xavier Watts moves back to wide receiver for Notre Dame

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman  talks with Notre Dame's Xavier Watts during Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 05, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

SOUTH BEND — Sixth-year senior Avery Davis changed positions repeatedly, bouncing from offense to defense and back, on his way to becoming one of the most respected Notre Dame players in recent memory.

Now Xavier Watts will get a chance to follow in Davis’ footsteps.

Wednesday morning, in response to Davis’ season-ending knee injury on Aug. 12, Watts traded his white No. 4 jersey for the blue No. 26 he wore upon his arrival as a four-star wide receiver recruit from Omaha, Neb.

Chat Transcript:How will Notre Dame football fill the Avery Davis void ... and much more

A redshirt sophomore, Watts took part in position drills with a already-thin receiver group that has been further weakened by injury. Sophomore Deion Colzie, who recently suffered a strained posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, again watched from the side in street clothes during the five periods of practice that were open to the media.

Redshirt freshman Jayden Thomas, who has drawn public praise from the coaching staff after a disappointing 2021, was back on the exercise bike Wednesday. It was the second time during open practice sessions that Thomas had to sit out.

Conversion:Xavier Watts making strides at safety position for Notre Dame

Senior Joe Wilkins Jr., however, was able to return to open drills for the first time since April 1 foot surgery. It’s unclear if Wilkins will be able to get back to playing speed in time for the Sept. 3 season opener at Ohio State.

With Davis, Colzie and Thomas all sidelined, first-year receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was briefly down to four healthy scholarship receivers before the Watts move and Wilkins’ return: senior Braden Lenzy, sophomore Lorenzo Styles, former walk-on Matt Salerno and four-star freshman Tobias Merriweather, a June enrollee.

A revelation down the stretch in 2021 as a hard-hitting safety, Watts told coach Marcus Freeman he preferred to stay on defense when the subject was raised early in the offseason. Watts saw 88 snaps on defense over the final five games last season, but just six of those came in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.

When asked about potential personnel moves on Aug. 13, Freeman agreed with the suggestion that one of those could be moving Watts back to offense.

“Xavier Watts is having a really good camp,” Freeman said.

Signed as a three-star recruit from Burke High School, where he posted 1,072 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior, Watts was rated among the top 75 receivers in the 2020 recruiting class.

In addition to mastering new details of the position that Stuckey will require, Watts must build a rapport with starting quarterback Tyler Buchner. When asked during a Twitter Spaces interview on June 16 about his trust level with the top two Irish quarterbacks, Watts admitted he was closer to Drew Pyne, who entered in the same recruiting class and joined him (and other teammates) for the 12-day Design Thinking program in Milan, Italy.

“That’s one of my best friends on the team,” Watts told former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire, the show’s host. “I’m going to choose Drew for now. I know him better than Buchner. I’ve only known Buchner for a year or so. I’m going to choose Drew. I trust him. That’s my guy.”

Gi'Bran Payne explains his 'no-brainer' decision

Freshman running back Gi’Bran Payne drew widespread interest after being granted his release from Indiana University on March 8.

The four-star product of Cincinnati’s LaSalle High School even took a visit to Kentucky, but once he re-connected with Notre Dame -- and former Hoosiers running backs coach Deland McCullough -- Payne’s decision was made.

Notre Dame's Gi'Bran Payne prior to Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 05, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

“Definitely a second father to me,” Payne said of McCullough. “I feel like he just cares about his players. It’s more than football with him. We can just talk about anything.”

While on the Cincinnati staff, Freeman had recruited Payne since he was a sophomore. Those talks continued once Freeman made the jump to the Irish.

Payne, whose final two high school seasons were wrecked by a broken right ankle and torn meniscus in his right knee, committed to Indiana in July of 2021.

McCullough kept Payne in the loop as he first replaced Lance Taylor (now Louisville’s offensive coordinator) and later spurned advances from the NFL’s New York Giants. Payne waited a month after the spring signing date before re-opening his recruitment.

“I definitely took some time and consideration and talked to my family,” Payne said. “There were a lot of switches at Indiana.”

That included new running backs coach Craig Johnson. Payne had a number conversations with Indiana coach Tom Allen before being requesting his release, and a visit to Notre Dame sealed the deal on April 15.  

“I always liked Notre Dame, the university as a whole,” Payne said. “They were in my top five before committing in the first place. When Coach D (McCullough) came over here after we had a great connection, a great bond at Indiana, it was just a no-brainer after that. That just put the cherry on top.”

Jarrett Patterson among the missing

Three-year starter Jarrett Patterson, the returning captain and All-America candidate after moving to left guard, was among a handful of offensive linemen absent from Wednesday’s open portion of practice.

Also missing were reserves Michael Carmody, Pat Coogan, Caleb Johnson, Aamil Wagner and Tosh Baker.

Carmody had taken mental reps on the side for multiple practices in Week 2 of August camp, but has been missing from open portions the past two times the media was allowed in. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said on Aug. 11 that Carmody “just got banged” without elaborating.

Freshmen Nolan Ziegler (linebacker) and Jayden Bellamy (cornerback), who missed time last week due to illness, were back on the field. So was reserve linebacker Prince Kollie, who suffered a concussion early in camp.

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and TikTok @mikeberardinondi.