June 17, 2024

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 0 Xavier Watts, senior safety, likely starter

Listed measurements: 5-foot-11 ¾, 198 pounds.
2023-24 year, eligibility: A senior, Watts has two seasons of eligibility remaining and, if he were to suffer an unfortunate injury, he could use three years to play them thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver overlooking his two-game appearance in 2020 and the usual year of eligibility it would have preserved.
Depth Chart: If Watts puts forth a solid showing this preseason — beginning with today’s first practice — he could be a starter in Dublin. Well, starting in Dublin may be a likelihood regardless, given how his physical game fits against the triple-option, but a September starting role is there for the taking if Watts delivers.
Recruiting: Most of the Big Ten chased the Nebraska native before he joined an intriguing Notre Dame receivers class, at least on paper. Of those three signees, not only is Watts the only one still playing with the Irish, he is the only one still playing FBS football. Former five-star Jordan Johnson entered the transfer portal for a second time this winter, leaving Central Florida, and as best as this space can ascertain, he never found a home. Three-star Jay Brunelle transferred to Yale last year, catching four passes for 106 yards and a touchdown last season.

Watts saw action in 2020 only because Notre Dame endured a coronavirus outbreak in its locker room. He then moved to linebacker before 2021 and to safety halfway through that season.

His most notable work quickly came against Navy, his linebacker’s build meshing well against the triple-option. Making three tackles kept him in the rotation until Irish star Kyle Hamilton suffered a season-ending injury and Watts needed to play a bit more, totaling 15 tackles as a sophomore on just 88 snaps.

Entering 2022, Watts finally had a position he knew he would stick at. That led to far more playing time and many more contributions, including starting in the season’s final four games.

2020: 2 games.
2021: 11 games; 15 tackles.
2022: 13 games, four starts; 39 tackles with two for loss including one sack and three pass breakups.

Watts knows his own weakness.

“Something that I need to work on is more so coverage, working on man-to-man skills,” he said this spring. “I’d say playmaking, as well. I left a couple plays out there last year that I wish I could get back.”

Some of that is the learning curve of moving from linebacker and, before that, from receiver.

“He has always had the natural instincts, natural athletic ability, all that,” Notre Dame safeties coach Chris O’Leary said. “It just took him a year, year-and-a-half, for that light switch to come on and really grasp what we’re doing on defense.”

“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.”

Watts finds the ball. There is no doubt about that. In just 304 snaps last year, he made 39 tackles. If he had maintained that kind of rate across a starter’s workload, Watts may have led Notre Dame in takedowns last season.

That could be the case this year, dethroning back-to-back tackling leader JD Bertrand.

Watts will not dabble at receiver this preseason, no matter how bad the depth concerns may be this time around. (Let’s not speculate what it would take to knock the Irish back down to only five healthy receivers.) The defensive coaching staff successfully lobbied against that move last August for a reason: They see what Watts could be at safety.

He could be a constant around the ball, and from a probability perspective, anyone around the ball that much should produce a few chaos plays, and that will be how Watts most impacts the 2023 season, no matter how many tackles he makes.

Watts would need to have an utterly prolific season to head to the NFL next spring. He simply has not put together enough film in his career to jump already. But with two years as a starter, Watts could grow into an NFL possibility.

He is undersized, so he will never be what the NFL wants most, but Watts’ natural instincts could move him up some draft boards.

Only sixth-year DJ Brown will be out of eligibility after this season among Notre Dame’s safeties, so Watts should have tested running buddies on the back end, allowing both players to indulge more in aggressive playmaking.

The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 93 Armel Mukam, incoming freshman defensive end, former Stanford commit
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U
No. 87 Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, again a backup but next year …
No. 78 Pat Coogan, junior interior offensive lineman
No. 77 Ty Chan, sophomore offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, first-team All-American left tackle
No. 75 Sullivan Absher, incoming freshman offensive lineman
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, sophomore left guard, likely starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, fifth-year right guard, likely starter
No. 72 Sam Pendelton, early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman
No. 70 Ashton Craig, sophomore interior offensive lineman
No. 68 Michael Carmody, senior offensive lineman
No. 65 Michael Vinson, sixth-year long snapper, four-year starter
No. 64 Joe Otting, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit
No. 59 Aamil Wagner, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 56 Charles Jagusah, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit
No. 56 Howard Cross, fifth-year defensive tackle, multi-year starter
No. 55 Chris Terek, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit
No. 54 Blake Fisher, junior right tackle, second-year starter
No. 52 Zeke Correll, fifth-year center, third-year starter
No. 51 Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, junior offensive guard
No. 47 Jason Onye, junior defensive tackle on the verge of playing time
No. 44 Junior Tuihalamaka, sophomore defensive end, former linebacker
No. 42 Nolan Ziegler, sophomore linebacker, Irish legacy
No. 41 Donovan Hinish, sophomore defensive tackle following in his brother’s footsteps
No. 40 Joshua Burnham, sophomore linebacker-turned-Vyper end
No. 38 Davis Sherwood, junior fullback/H-back, former walk-on
No. 34 Drayk Bowen, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, baseball infielder
No. 32 Spencer Shrader, South Florida transfer kicker
No. 31 Nana Osafo-Mensah, fifth-year defensive end
No. 29 Christian Gray, early-enrolled freshman cornerback coming off a knee injury
No. 29 Matt Salerno, sixth-year receiver, former walk-on
No. 27 JD Bertrand, fifth-year linebacker, third-year starter, possible captain
No. 25 Preston Zinter, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, subtle recruiting win
No. 24 Jack Kiser, fifth-year linebacker, third-year starter, most efficient defender
No. 24 Jadarian Price, sophomore RB, reportedly recovered from an Achilles injury
No. 23 Jaiden Ausberry, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, four-star recruit
No. 22 Ben Minich, early-enrolled freshman safety, four-star recruit
No. 22 Jeremiyah Love, incoming freshman running back, four-star recruit
No. 21 Adon Shuler, early-enrolled freshman safety coming off shoulder surgery
No. 20 Benjamin Morrison, sophomore cornerback, preseason All-American
No. 19 Jaden Greathouse, early-enrolled freshman receiver, Blue-Gold Game star
No. 18 Steve Angeli, sophomore quarterback, competing for the backup role
No. 18 Chance Tucker, junior cornerback
No. 17 Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 17 Rico Flores Jr., early-enrolled freshman receiver, four-star recruit
No. 16 Micah Bell, incoming freshman cornerback, speedy four-star recruit
No. 15 Ryan Barnes, junior cornerback
No. 14 Bryce McFerson, sophomore punter facing a challenge for a second straight year
No. 14 Braylon James, early-enrolled freshman receiver, four-star recruit
No. 13 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 13 Thomas Harper, Oklahoma State graduate transfer safety/nickel back
No. 12 Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience
No. 12 Jordan Botelho, senior Vyper defensive end
No. 11 KK Smith, incoming freshman receiver, speedster
No. 11 Ramon Henderson, senior safety
No. 10 Sam Hartman, Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback, QB1
No. 9 Eli Raridon, sophomore tight end coming off a second ACL tear
No. 8 Kenny Minchey, early-enrolled freshman quarterback, former Pittsburgh commit
No. 8 Marist Liufau, fifth-year linebacker, second season as a starter
No. 7 Audric Estimé, junior running back, bellcow, workhorse
No. 7 Jaden Mickey, sophomore cornerback coming off big and small life lessons
No. 6 Clarence Lewis, senior cornerback with more experience than most realize
No. 5 Tobias Merriweather, sophomore receiver subject to lofty comparisons
No. 5 Cam Hart, fifth-year cornerback, coming off another shoulder injury
No. 4 Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
No. 3 Jaylen Sneed, sophomore linebacker coming off a notable role in the Gator Bowl
No. 3 Gi’Bran Payne, sophomore running back
No. 2 DJ Brown, sixth-year safety, possible two-year starter
No. 2 Chris Tyree, senior running back-turned-receiver
No. 1 Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Ohio State transfer defensive end

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