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Notre Dame Football

Marcus Freeman addresses Xavier Watts skipping senior day festivities, NBC extension

November 20, 2023

The Fighting Irish honored 31 seniors prior to a 45-7 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday. 

Fans and media members alike quickly pointed out that senior Xavier Watts was absent from such festivities. 

On Monday, Coach Marcus Freeman clarified that Watts made the decision to do so. 

“He was a guy I talked with,” Freeman said, “(along with) those guys that might be going into their fourth year, I had a conversation earlier in the year, ‘Do you want to be considered a senior this year?’ He was one of them that did not.”

The safety continues to lead all Football Bowl Subdivision players with seven interceptions in his first full season at the position. 

Such production has put him on the radar of professional scouts. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks him the seventh-best safety prospect ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft. 

Based on positional value, that only equates to Watts becoming a fourth or fifth-round pick at best. 

At the same time, it might make sense for him to seize the opportunity. He likely has enough credits to graduate after enrolling early as a freshman, and it’ll be nearly impossible to create the same number of turnovers next season. 

That said, it’s fair to assume he’s leaning toward a 2024 return since participating in senior day wouldn’t have barred him from a fifth year at Notre Dame.

Still, Freeman said that Watts still hasn’t made a final decision.

“I don’t know what he’s going to do in his future,” Freeman said. “I’m sure that’s what this question is pertaining to. I don’t know. He hasn’t made a decision, but he didn’t want to be considered a senior.”

Of course, the same could be said of seniors and graduate students who choose to walk with their parents. It still makes sense for Howard Cross III to return, but perhaps he’s still uncertain and simply didn’t want to risk missing out on such an important tradition.

Four other seniors also held themselves out of Saturday’s pre-game festivities: defensive back Clarence Lewis, safety Ramon Henderson, defensive end Jordan Botelho and offensive tackle Tosh Baker.

Like Watts, there’s no guarantee any of them will be back, but all four would be valuable contributors to next year’s roster.

NBC = Recruiting Advantage

Prior to the game, Notre Dame announced that it’s extended its partnership with NBC through 2029. 

The new deal likely nets Notre Dame more than $50 million annually, per Front Office Sports. Plus, the Irish still get a decent chunk of change from their partial ACC membership. 

Additionally, Notre Dame received about $10.8 for the 2019 fiscal year. It’s fair to assume that figure has only gone up since. 

Combined, Notre Dame may not make as much from its TV partnerships as the revenue members of the Big Ten and SEC are set to generate from their conference affiliations in the future, but the Irish are at least ahead of the most recent per-school distributions

Plus, there are on-the-field benefits of re-upping with NBC. 

“It adds to the value of what Notre Dame provides, right?” Freeman said. “That’s the ability for us to go sell that in recruiting. You’re the only college football program with its exclusive network. To me, it’s that Notre Dame value, the value this place truly provides you.”

Like it or not, blue-chip football prospects like to stand out in as many ways as possible.

“It will definitely be beneficial for us in recruiting because people want to know they’re special,” Freeman said. “I believe when you get a chance to play at Notre Dame, and you have some of those things we just mentioned, you realize how special it is.” 

It’s unclear how much AD-in-waiting Pete Bevacqua had to do with the deal, but it’s safe to say that the former chairman of NBC Sports participated in internal discussions, even if he’s still serving as a special assistant until Swarbrick officially steps down “sometime in the first quarter of 2024.”

Freeman continues to get to know his future boss as they both navigate relatively new leadership positions. 

“Pete’s been excellent in his transition with Jack,” he said. “I think he’s kind of like me last year, just figuring it out, right? (He’s) figuring out what it is to be a college athletic director, but he has been a great supporter, teammate and sounding board at times. So I’m excited for the future of Notre Dame athletics with him.”

Still, Freeman clearly laments Swarbrick’s ever-approaching departure, calling the man who hired him a “dear friend” and “mentor.”

“It’s just mind-blowing some of the things he created for this athletics program,” Freeman said. “He is leaving this place way better than he found it. I judge people based on —  our seniors, Jack Swarbrick — is this place better than you found it? I say with a whole certainty that it is.”

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