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Notre Dame Football

The Future is Now for Botelho and Watts

December 12, 2022

With it now being normal for players to opt out from bowl games who are entering the NFL Draft, there’s this notion that bowl games no longer matter.

For those who opt out, there’s validity to that. They have so many hours of film already out there and if players are expected to be high picks, like Michael Mayer, Isaiah Foskey, and South Carolina’s Cam Smith, it’s understandable for them to not take the risk of getting injured in one final game.

It’s much different for the players who are returning. The game and all of the practices leading up to it matter a lot when it comes to building for the next season. Think of Ian Book and Miles Boykin in the Citrus Bowl and how that helped propel them into the 2018 season.

The next few weeks could mean a significant amount for two players who showed out for the Irish on defense in the back half of the season. Vyper Jordan Botelho and safety Xavier Watts showed enough down the stretch to suggest they are going to play a big role for Notre Dame in 2023 and both should play significant snaps against South Carolina as well.

In the first seven games, Botelho only played 19 snaps total on defense. He was the odd man out in the rotation up front and it would have been fair to question if he was going to be in the mix to compete for a starting job in 2023 and beyond.

That all changed against Syracuse. In Notre Dame’slast five games, he had 4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and had a blocked punt against Clemson. He only averaged 12 snaps per game, but managed to make an impact in those limited chances.

Those snaps are bound to go up in this next game.

“He’s been capitalizing on his opportunities and this is the biggest one of them all because Foskey isn’t there,” defensive coordinator Al Golden stated. “He’ll have a chance to compete for that starting nod. Regardless, he’s going to play a lot.”

Botelho has been very good as a pass rusher (a 24.3% pass rush win percentage is outstanding) and if he could get an opportunity to be part of Notre Dame’s 3rd down package for the first time in his career. And if he can continue to be strong against the run, it will help answer a lot of questions people have about the Vyper position with Foskey leaving.

It’s hard to believe that Xavier Watts was working with the receivers a few months ago when numerous injuries made it difficult to practice for Notre Dame during fall camp. The staff fought to keep him on the defensive side of the ball, though, and that proved to be a very smart move.

He has played like a rising star to close out the season. 19 of his 36 tackles came in the final three games and his playing time kept increasing. He ended up playing more snaps this year than both Houston Griffith and Ramon Henderson.

When asked about him on Sunday, Golden praised how much Watts has improved.

"You can argue he's made the most growth, right? Not just in playing time, but in play-making. The thing that we're challenging him to do, and I just got done talking to him, so it's amazing you asked the question, I just wanted to go over there and recognize and thank him for being more vocal. For taking more control. That's been the challenge.”

Golden continued, “He's reached a comfort level now where he's doing that. And you can't be a great safety without being verbal and demonstrative. And being in command. You don't always make the right decision, but if you're decisive, and you're loud, and we're all playing the same thing, so be it. We can fix that. We can't fix when nine guys are playing one thing, and two are playing another. And, CO (Chris O'Leary) has been doing a great job with him. And I was really pleased with how vocal he was running it today, which was great."

Notre Dame was desperate for some playmaking from the safety position this season and didn’t really get much of it until Watts stepped up. He plays downhill and led the Irish safety in havoc plays.

Watts is going to be a starter for Notre Dame next season. Botelho is on track to compete for that starting Vyper position as well. If they keep playing as well as they have to finish this season, they could end up being two of the best players on the defense.

They’ll get the chance to show they’re on their way to that by making a statement in the Gator Bowl.

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