Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 4 Xavier Watts, junior receiver-turned-safety

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 North Carolina at Notre Dame
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Listed measurements: 5-foot-11 ¾, 195 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: A junior, Watts has three seasons of eligibility remaining. While it may be assumed all upperclassmen’s eligibility was inflated by the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, Watts and many juniors are on the typical five-year track.
Depth Chart: Watts is one of four safeties competing to start alongside Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph, and with the least experience both at safety and on defense in general, Watts is presumably the fourth the pecking order among the four.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect and the No. 90 receiver in the class of 2020, per rivals.com, Watts narrowed his choice to Notre Dame and his homestate Nebraska, despite offers from more than half the Big 10 as well as Tennessee, Louisville and Iowa State.

CAREER TO DATE
As a freshman, Watts played in the two games that bookended the Irish coronavirus outbreak, one of many deep reserves to chip in with spot duty those weeks due to the obvious shorthanded nature of the locker room.

He was still a receiver then. It was not until last September that Watts’ move to linebacker became publicly known, and before he saw a genuine chance there, he moved to safety. His most notable work came against Navy, when the physical nature of his linebacker’s physique fit well facing the triple-option. Watts played well enough to stay in the rotation through the end of the season, part of how Notre Dame navigated the loss of star Kyle Hamilton.

2020: 2 games.
2021: 11 games; 15 tackles.

That may not seem like many tackles, but Watts made those 15 takedowns in just 88 snaps.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Watts appears to make a little spare change by hawking a simple, college football-focused t-shirt, one espousing a belief that few can argue with.

More notably, Watts and the NBC Sports NIL marketplace found a way to help him profit off a hobby.

QUOTES
Watts was viewed as a multi-positional receiver when he enrolled early in 2020. Of course, that spring never happened in a football sense, and Notre Dame admittedly struggled to get newcomers up to speed due to the pandemic’s limitations that fall. So his only moments of note on offense came in 2021’s spring.

Thus, the move to defense surprised Watts, but the Irish needed depth at linebacker after Marist Liufau, Shayne Simon and Paul Moala were all lost for the season to injury. And Watts had excelled as a defensive back in high school, making 68 tackles and picking off three passes in his senior season.

“[The move] caught me by surprise a little bit,” Watts admitted in the winter. “I really wasn’t expecting it too much.

“I played it in high school, so I wasn’t too worried about it. I was excited to go out there and try something new.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Few projections end up further off than this one, undone by Watts’ eventual position change.

“Notre Dame’s uncertainty at receiver will end up to someone’s benefit. Of the 10 receivers on the roster, from a sheer numbers perspective, some receiver or two will break through. Simple logic suggests that is more likely to be one of the four seniors and not one of the two remaining sophomores, but that latter thought cannot be ruled out.

“Watts will get a chance at that, if nothing else, presuming he can stay healthy. His natural hands and comfort chasing a deep ball — exhibited both in that pass from Buchner and in his work as a defensive back in high school — make it clear Watts has collegiate talent. It very well may be he simply needs to find health for a sustained stretch.

“The odds are, though, Watts will provide depth in 2021, especially since slot receiver is the only established position in the group, and more obvious candidates have shown some flashes in their careers at both field (senior Braden Lenzy) and boundary (senior Joe Wilkins; theoretically senior Kevin Austin).”

2022 OUTLOOK
Watts’ 15 tackles on only 88 snaps might be an inflated piece of praise, simply given the nature of playing significantly against Navy, but it is still a valid bit to note. Watts has a knack for finding the action.

That action may blow by him, simply given his lack of experience, especially compared to Joseph, fifth-years DJ Brown and Houston Griffith, and junior Ramon Henderson. That will be the risk of playing Watts, while his eagerness to hit the ball carrier is the reward.

With those other options around, Watts’ time should remain limited in 2022. Plodding offenses will best cater to his skill set, presumably Cal, Stanford and Navy more than any other opponents.

In just those three games, Watts may approach last year’s 15 tackles. By no means does his inexperience condemn him to the bench. The Irish will recognize the cure to that inexperience is playing time, gleaned whenever possible.

RELATED READING: Xavier Watts growing, learning and flashing

BEFORE YOU ASK
Watts is not going to move back to receiver to help with yet another depth issue. Notre Dame may have only seven healthy receivers, including a former walk-on, but Watts has chosen to focus on defense, feeling his long-term ceiling is higher there than at receiver. Based on what he showed last fall, that may prove wise.

DOWN THE ROAD
Getting Watts reps on Saturdays will be vital for Notre Dame as it moves forward. Joseph likely will head to the NFL this spring, while Brown and Griffith will be out of eligibility. That will leave Watts and Henderson the top-two options on the Irish depth chart at safety, at least at first glance.

Others will compete for the starting roles. Namely, current sophomore Justin Walters and a pair of highly-touted 2023 commitments could push Watts.

If his high-school playmaking shows itself this fall or in the spring, those pushes may not matter.

RELATED READING: 2023 recruiting off to strong start with 8 consensus four-star commits
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 22 Justin Walters, sophomore safety

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March
No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, early-enrolled freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger, junior defensive end, a German project nearing completion
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight end
No. 87 Michael Mayer, junior tight end, likely All-American
No. 85 Holden Staes, incoming freshman tight end
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, junior tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, sophomore receiver, former four-star recruit
No. 80 Cane Berrong, sophomore tight end coming off an ACL injury
No. 79 Tosh Baker, one of four young Irish offensive tackles
No. 78 Pat Coogan, sophomore center, recovering from a meniscus injury
No. 77 Ty Chan, incoming offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, sophomore starting left tackle
No. 75 Josh Lugg, sixth-year offensive lineman, likely starting right guard
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard coming off foot surgery
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, senior offensive tackle-turned-guard
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, sophomore offensive tackle, former Auburn pledge
No. 68 Michael Carmody, junior offensive line utility man
No. 65 Michael Vinson, long snapper, ‘Milk’
No. 65 Chris Smith, defensive tackle, Harvard transfer
No. 59 Aamil Wagner, consensus four-star incoming freshman offensive tackle
No. 58 Ashton Craig, incoming freshman center
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, fifth-year defensive tackle, coming off shoulder surgery
No. 56 Joey Tanona, early-enrolled offensive guard coming off a concussion
No. 56 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle with heavy hands, and that’s a good thing
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, fifth-year offensive lineman, three-year starting center, captain
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, senior defensive tackle, now lighter and a starter
No. 54 Blake Fisher, sophomore starting right tackle, ‘ginormous’
No. 52 Zeke Correll, senior center or perhaps left guard
No. 52 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker, Ironman
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, sophomore offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, sophomore end-turned-linebacker
No. 47 Jason Oyne, sophomore defensive end-turned-tackle
No. 44 Junior Tuihalamaka, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, consensus four-star recruit
No. 44 Alex Peitsch, junior long snapper
No. 42 Nolan Ziegler, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Irish legacy
No. 41 Donovan Hinish, incoming freshman defensive tackle, Kurt’s brother
No. 40 Joshua Burnham, early-enrolled freshman linebacker-turned-end
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury
No. 31 NaNa Osafo-Mensah, senior defensive end
No. 29 Matt Salerno, fifth-year receiver, punt returner, former walk-on
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, fifth-year starting nickel back
No. 27 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker recovering from a plaguing wrist injury
No. 25 Philip Riley, sophomore cornerback
No. 25 Chris Tyree, junior running back, possible Irish bellcow
No. 24 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker, second-year starter
No. 23 Jayden Bellamy, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 22 Justin Walters, sophomore safety
No. 22 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back with a shoulder injury
No. 21 Jaden Mickey, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 20 Jadarian Price, early-enrolled freshman running back with a ruptured Achilles
No. 20 Benjamin Morrison, freshman cornerback
No. 18 Chance Tucker, sophomore cornerback
No. 18 Steve Angeli, freshman QB, Blue-Gold Game star
No. 17 Jaylen Sneed, early-enrolled linebacker, Rover of the future
No. 16 Brandon Joseph, Northwestern transfer, preseason All-American, starting safety
No. 16 Deion Colzie, sophomore receiver
No. 15 Tobias Merriweather, freshman receiver, forever a memorable recruitment
No. 15 Ryan Barnes, sophomore cornerback
No. 14 Bryce McFerson, freshman punter facing a Harvard challenge
No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit
No. 12 Tyler Buchner, sophomore starting QB
No. 12 Jordan Botelho, a defensive end-turned-linebacker
No. 11 Ron Powlus III, sophomore QB providing steadiness to a chaotic room
No. 11 Ramon Henderson, junior cornerback-turned-safety
No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback
No. 10 Prince Kollie, sophomore linebacker, high school Butkus Award winner
No. 9 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL
No. 9 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end, a backup in name only
No. 8 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker returning from a dislocated ankle
No. 7 Audric Estime, sophomore running back, No. 2 on the shortened depth chart
No. 7 Isaiah Foskey, defensive end on a record chase
No. 6 Clarence Lewis, three-year starting cornerback
No. 5 Joe Wilkins, receiver with a September-costing foot injury
No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter