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Notre Dame Football

Xavier Watts Taking on a Greater Role in 2024

April 8, 2024

It’s not often that a player becomes an All-American in their first season as a full-time starter. That was the path for Xavier Watts, though.

To outsiders, it may have seemed like he was an overnight success story. The reality is that it was a longer road from receiver to backup safety to rotational player and then starter.

Things started to come together for him during the 2022 season and an injury to Brandon Joseph opened the door for him to start.

“It was kind of a progression,” Watts said. “Like you said, the first half of the season, I was kind of more of a role player. Behind (Brandon Joseph) and DJ (Brown), kind of rotating in.

“Once BJ got hurt, when I started moving in more, it was more so a progression of work. I was getting more reps. I was getting more comfortable around the defense. I was kind of taking it step by step and day by day and working on the best version of myself.”

Watts finished with a flurry. He had 22 tackles and four havoc plays in the final four games. That was reason enough to think he could be a breakout player for the Irish in 2023. He was far greater than that and led the nation in interceptions as well as winning the Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player.

So, what can Watts do as an encore? He’s not worried about surpassing the numbers he put up last season. He believes he’s only scratching the surface at the position and he has a goal of becoming a captain this fall.

“The main reason I came back is to elevate my game to another level. I still think I’m a little raw at safety,” admitted Watts. “I mean, I had a really good season last year, but I feel like I can have an even better season. Even if it’s not with all of those statistics. Really just elevating my game, taking that next step, and like you said…being a captain would mean a lot to me. Just those two things are what I’m working on as well.”

He’s already taken on more of a leadership role this spring. He’s the oldest guy in the room now and has taken on the mentality of a veteran while being able to mentor Adon Shuler, Ben Minich, and Luke Talich. Watts feels secure with his position and has a greater command of the defense as a whole.

“I just think it comes down to being comfortable,” Watts stated. “Just having that mindset of like, I’m a veteran now. Feeling like guys from last year like DJ, he’s been there for six years.

“It’s having that mindset. I’m a veteran now. I have to know exactly what I’m doing. I need to know exactly what everyone else is doing and be able to command the defense. Just taking that progression from right now to last year and having a totally different mindset.”

Taking on a greater role as a leader hasn’t just benefited the younger players. It has helped Watts break out of his shell.

“It opens up a new kind of trait,” Watts said. “Like, I’m a laid back guy, but it makes me step out of my comfort zone and open up a new personality to start coaching the young guys because I know the whole defense. I can do everything, so now it’s just helping out the young guys and it helps them elevate their game.”

Watts and the other safeties have had to make the adjustment from Chris O’Leary to Mike Mickens as their coach. Although Watts admits that they have two different coaching styles, the familiarity with the scheme and the rest of the coaching staff has made it a smooth transition.

In the same scheme and with an even better understanding of it, there’s no reason to believe Watts won’t continue to be one of the best safeties in the country. It took him a while to get to this point in his college football career, but he’s ascended to a higher level and is looking to elevate his game even further in 2024.

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