'Natural leader' Brandon Joseph shakes off injury scare, returns to make highlight interception in Notre Dame practice

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
FILE - Northwestern defensive back Brandon Joseph (16) intercepts a pass intended for Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson in the end zone during the first half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Indianapolis. Joseph had six interceptions in 2020 and three more in 2021. He also had 79 tackles last year. He was an Associated Press All-America first-team selection in 2020 while helping Northwestern reach the Big Ten championship game. Joseph's arrival at Notre Dame should fortify an Irish secondary that must replace safety Kyle Hamilton, the Baltimore Ravens' first-round pick. (AP Photo/AJ Mast, File)

SOUTH BEND — Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph gave his new teammates a scare when he limped off the field during Friday’s 11-on-11 practice period.

The 2020 All-America safety removed his right cleat and motioned to the inside of his foot/heel area as a trainer attended to him in the medical tent. Joseph missed about 10 minutes of practice while getting re-taped but he made a quick impact upon his return.

On his second play back, Joseph made a leaping downfield interception of an underthrown Drew Pyne pass that was intended for Xavier Watts. Freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey had primary coverage on the play.  

Brandon Joseph:Notre Dame's outspoken star wants to prove he can handle the heat

That pick, which excited the Irish sideline, proved to be Joseph’s final rep of the two-hour practice. Earlier, Joseph was quite vocal calling for someone to step into a vacant position during team drills.

“We need a rover!” Joseph barked. “Find a rover now!”

Irish coach Marcus Freeman called Joseph “a natural leader” who has the requisite personality to survive in the defensive secondary.

“You’ve got to be confident, and B-Jo is very confident,” Freeman said after Thursday’s 90-play scrimmage at Notre Dame Stadium. “You’ve got to be a playmaker back there. He’s made plays. He’s very vocal in making checks and making sure everybody is on the same page.”

Who will return punts?

Despite just four career punt returns with the Wildcats, all against lesser opponents, Joseph was cited this week as the top candidate for that role in the Sept. 3 season-opening game at No. 2 Ohio State.

Considering his importance to the Irish defense and Friday’s foot issue, it remains to be seen if Joseph will be asked to contribute much on special teams this year.

Other candidates include sure-handed Matt Salerno, a former walk-on who handled the bulk of punt returns in 2020; freshmen Gi’Bran Payne and Mickey; and speedster Chris Tyree, who is the primary kickoff returner.

Notre Dame tight end Mitchell Evans (88) during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

'The only way'

Freeman was asked on Thursday if there was a common thread to the series of foot and Achilles’ injuries Notre Dame players have suffered, going back to senior receiver Joe Wilkins Jr.’s Lisfranc fracture in late March.

Others on that list include running back Jadarian Price, tight end Mitchell Evans and left guard Jarrett Patterson, who is questionable for the opener after straining his right foot on Monday.

“No, it’s just what happens, I guess, with working out and practice,” Freeman said. “Those are injuries that happen across college football. It’s a tough, grueling game that the only way to prepare your team is to make it hard and to work at it.”

Freeman said there have been more “good on good” practice repetitions than normal matching the first-string offense and first-string defense. That is by design with the Irish opening as a 14 ½-point underdog on the road against the Buckeyes.

“If we didn’t have to go out there and bang each other and work really hard and be ready to play on Sept. 3, we would do that,” he said. “This is what’s necessary to prepare your team to play a grueling 12-game season. It’s what it takes. Until somebody tells me otherwise, you have to trust the preparation and your process.”

‘Double Duty' Xavier Watts

There was a good reason Watts was spotted carrying his white No. 4 jersey across the street to practice on Wednesday morning while wearing a blue No. 26 jersey.

The redshirt sophomore from Omaha, Neb., is playing both ways.  

A string of injuries in the wide receiver corps forced Watts, a converted safety, back into the role he held from his arrival in 2020 until early last fall.

“He was really progressing as a safety,” Freeman said Thursday. “The unselfishness out of him … talks to his character.”

Is it a permanent thing?

“It’s a ‘now’ thing,” Freeman said. “He did both sides of the ball (Thursday) and did a really good job. We’re obviously down some numbers (at receiver). Next thing you know, the next series, he’s in our defense.”

On Friday, during the last fully open practice of the season, Watts focused exclusively on offense and made several catches during team periods. The most impressive went for 40 yards off the arm of freshman quarterback Steve Angeli as Watts was able to outleap two defenders for a high-arcing pass downfield.

The coaching staff approached Watts around the time Jayden Thomas (hamstring) joined Deion Colzie (knee strain) and Avery Davis (season-ending ACL tear) on the shelf.

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