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Notre Dame Football

X (Watts) + 2023 = a Breakout Season

August 8, 2023
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Last year at this time, no one would have predicted that Xavier Watts was destined to be Notre Dame’s next great safety.

With an already light depth chart and a few injuries, the receiver position was depleted last August. Notre Dame needed more bodies to simply have a normal practice so the obvious choice to help during that time was Watts, who had played receiver before moving to the other side of the ball in 2021.

The staff made it clear that the move back to receiver was just temporary. They liked the potential of Watts at safety and thought he had a bright future at the position. He proved them correct when he began to break out towards the end of last year.

In the first nine games, Watts compiled 17 tackles and only one Havoc play (tackles for loss, pass breakups, interceptions, or forced fumbles). In the final four games he had a massive jump in production with 21 tackles and four Havoc plays while leading the safety position in total snaps in the final two games.

Overall he finished 9th in PFF’s run defense grade out of Power 5 players at the safety position and 5th in “stop percentage”, which is the percentage of tackles that constitute a failure for the offense.

That improvement has Notre Dame fans understandably excited about Watts in 2023. A year ago some were calling for him to move back to offense. Now Watts is settled in as the best safety on the roster.

“I feel light-years ahead, way confident,” Watts said when asked about how much more comfortable he is this year compared to last. “I know the whole defense. I'm able to tell other people's jobs now. “Last fall camp, I obviously switched to receiver for a little bit. So it took a couple of weeks out of me, like two or three weeks or whatever, when I was looking at offense and defense, so it was a little hard. But now I just feel a lot more comfortable. Like I said, just being able to have that comfortability to tell people what they're doing and just know my job 100 percent.”

The coaching staff first talked about recognizing Watts’ potential when he flashed against Navy in 2021. Playing downhill as a run defender and tackling on the perimeter was natural for him. Coverage was a bit more of an adjustment, but fellow safety Ramon Henderson has seen Watts become more of a complete safety.

“One of the first things I’ve seen in growth with him is man (coverage) technique. He’s starting to get really good in his technique with everything,” explained Henderson. “Obviously, he’s a great tackler, but there were just little things that he wasn’t the best at before that he’s getting better at now. Overall, good player. He’s smart. He can do a lot of things really well.”

Safeties coach Chris O’Leary was asked a lot of questions about Watts prior to last season. This August he was barely asked anything about Watts because he’s gone from someone viewed as a developmental player to one that Notre Dame is going to rely on.

O’Leary’s expectations for Watts are high. He knows the kind of work Watts has put in to get to this point. He has taken his game to another level.

“I’m just excited,” O’Leary said while smiling.

“I can’t wait to watch what he does this year. This is going to be his breakout year and he’s put in the work for now 2 ½ -3 years and you can see it in his game. He’s doing things that you coach Level 2 Level 3 of safety play and he’s starting to get into those in live situations so he’s going to make a lot of plays.

“He’s twitchy and he’s going to strike. He’s going to have a big year for us.”

Watts is in the process of completing a masters degree in sports analytics. He wants to play in the NFL and with a good season, he’ll be on his way to doing that, but he knows the NFL stands for “Not For Long” and this degree is something he can use to maybe work in a front office when his playing days are over.

The analytics says he was a great run defender last season. The eye-test says he’s made significant progress in coverage. Add them together and Watts is set up to have a big season for the Irish.

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