As most hard-core recruiting fans notice Brian VanGorder’s willingness to break the mold when it comes to recruiting, freshman cornerback Nick Watkins looks the part of a perfect prototype. A long, lanky and athletic cornerback, defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks reeled in the Dallas product, a great get as the Irish’s move into Texas continues to grow.
With KeiVarae Russell suspended, Watkins fought his way onto the two-deep, capable of playing now, thanks to tremendous athleticism and instincts. Likely a contributor with or without a suspension, let’s take a closer look at Notre Dame’s youngest cornerback.
6’0″ 194 lbs.
Freshman, No. 19
A four-star, Top 200 recruit, Watkins didn’t receive a ranking as high as you might expect, especially when looking at his offer list. Just about every top program in the country was chasing the Dallas native, as the Bishop Dunne star had offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Stanford, Texas, USC and UCLA to name a few.
But Watkins took an official visit to South Bend in October and then gave the Irish his pledge in November, sticking to it through Signing Day and giving Brian Kelly a tremendous athlete to add to his secondary.
“This is a long corner. If this is draft day, you’re getting a No.1 draft pick,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “This kid is an exceptional football player. We think we got one of the best corners around. Long, athletic, can really do a lot of things for us.”
Don’t let me get in the way of the head coach’s evaluation. Watkins likely didn’t get the top-shelf ranking from recruiting websites just because he didn’t take part in the summer season, unwilling to travel to the various combines and camps. But Watkins impressed at the Under Armour All-American game, and did the same during summer work in South Bend, tabbed early as a guy who should see the field almost immediately.
Getting a look at Watkins’ highlight tape, you see a silky smooth athlete. That reputation has been cemented by the coaching staff this fall. Walking into a secondary that still is awaiting KeiVarae Russell’s fate, Watkins should take some snaps immediately in VanGorder and Cooks’ secondary, especially with the length he brings as a cover man.
While we heard about the good camp Josh Atkinson had, expect Watkins to make it into the mix before Atkinson or Jalen Brown. With Cody Riggs having the versatility to slide inside and cover slot receivers, Watkins could work into a rotation on the outside with Cole Luke and Devin Butler.
There doesn’t seem to be much room to hide in VanGorder’s scheme, so there could be some growing pains — not just for Watkins, but for all the cornerbacks. But make no mistake, Watkins is a key part of the Irish’s future in the secondary, and he’s still got a very good chance of helping out now as well.
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Torii Hunter Jr.