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What's next in the compelling journey of Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts?

Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts (0) had a monster game Oct. 14 against USC and 2022 Heisman Trophy winner, Trojans QB Caleb Williams (13).
Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts (0) had a monster game Oct. 14 against USC and 2022 Heisman Trophy winner, Trojans QB Caleb Williams (13). (Jeff Douglas, Inside ND Sports)

A day after winning college football’s most coveted award for a defensive player, Notre Dame senior safety Xavier Watts’ biggest preoccupation Tuesday was how to take the next steps to improve his game — as well as his life outside of football.

And not necessarily with where that will all unfold.

“I feel like, personally, I have a lot more to grow as a player,” the newly anointed Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner said on a late-afternoon Zoom call with the media. “I mean, I felt like this season was kind of just like a coming-out party. I feel like I have a lot more to still show as a player.”

Whether the converted wide receiver and nation’s leader in interceptions (7) shows that as a fifth-year player for the Irish next fall or wades into the 2024 NFL Draft pool, the 6-foot, 204-pound Omaha, Neb., product is still pondering. But he confirmed Tuesday that he’s opting into No. 16 Notre Dame’s Dec. 29 Sun Bowl date in El Paso, Texas, with 19th-ranked Oregon State (8-4).



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“I just kind of want to play football regardless,” Watts said of his decision. “I mean, even if I was maybe to decide to go to the draft, I think I'd probably lean toward wanting to play in the game anyway, because it's like your last time around all the same guys that you're going to be with, the last time as [a player for the] 2023 Fighting Irish.”

He has already mapped out in his mind what it might look like to be a member of the 2024 rendition, in what would be an overwhelmingly welcome scenario for Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman. The Irish (9-3) lose two veteran safeties, nickel Thomas Harper and fellow starter DJ Brown, to expired eligibility, and two more, in senior Ramon Henderson and grad Antonio Carter II, to the transfer portal.

The other scholarship safeties set for the 2024 roster are either redshirt freshman or true freshman, though Freeman filled the nickel role earlier this week with the addition of Arizona State grad transfer Jordan Clark.

Watts, a visual communication design major with a minor in computing and digital technologies, already had graduated last May, months before his senior football season began. And he’ll finish his first semester of a one-year master’s program in business sports analytics next week.

“I think I have five years to finish it,” he said of the master’s degree. “But if I decide to stay out, I’d be done with my master’s in May. And then if I decide to come back, I’ll probably just do like [a] non-degree-seeking [curriculum in the fall] or something like that.”

And work as hard on the field as he did as a freshman wide receiver with zero receptions and just two game cameos in 2020, or as an emergency rover/linebacker in early in the 2021 season in a body type short on heft for the position.

But never lacking in ambition or resilience.

And that’s what makes Watts’ journey to being named college football’s best defensive player so compelling. The journey itself. The struggle. And what it turned into.

It’s what college football is all about, or at least used to be.

“I just kind of stayed the course and just continued to believe in myself,” Watts said, “and just kind of trusted the coaches in believing that they knew what they were doing in moving me around. Just staying with the process and trying to stay as positive as possible.”


Watts came to ND in the spring semester of 2020 as an early enrolled three-star prospect and part of a three-man freshman wide receiver class that included five-star prospect Jordan Johnson and summer camp discovery Jay Brunelle.

On the first day of 2020 spring practice, he wowed the media in attendance with his wide receiver skills. The subsequent 14 spring practices, though, were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And none of the three freshman wideouts could get traction for playing time on a playoff-bound Irish squad that played a revamped ACC schedule. Before Watts started his sophomore season, Johnson had transferred to UCF and Brunelle to Yale after all going catchless in 2020.

Johnson spent the 2023 season at Iowa Western Community College after two statistic-less seasons at UCF. Brunelle was a deep reserve at Boston College after amassing four catches and an undergrad degree at Yale in his two years there.

Offseason/early-season injuries in 2021 to Irish rovers Paul Moala, Shayne Simon and Marist Liufau prompted then-head coach Brian Kelly to ask Watts to make the move to defense in week 2 of that season. Just when he was getting his bearings, All-America safety Kyle Hamilton went down with a midseason injury and never returned.

And Watts was suddenly at position No. 3 in his first season and a half of college football.

Ironically, the award's namesake, a multi-position star from Minnesota almost 100 years ago once prompted legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne to remark of Nagurski, "He is the only player I ever saw who could have played every position.”

“It's been difficult,” Watts said. “And to get to that point where I'm able to be recognized as one of the best — or THE best defender — in the nation, that is just unreal. I mean, you look back, playing offense, defense — all that — and just how difficult it was playing safety.

“And then my steps as safety, kind of being the backup and not playing so much, and then becoming the guy is just unreal. Just having that [Nagurski] trophy in my hand and having my name called is amazing.”

And amazing too considering the caliber of players who held that trophy before him. The last seven Nagurski winners went on to become first-round NFL Draft choices. Notre Dame’s only previous winner, since the award’s inception in 1993, was a Heisman Trophy runner-up, linebacker Manti Te’o (2012).

Te’o is also the last Notre Dame player to have as many as seven picks in a season. The last Irish player with more was All-America cornerback and first-round draft choice Todd Lyght in 1989. Meanwhile, Michael Townsend has owned the school record of 10 since 1972.

To go along with the seven interceptions, Watts has 47 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for the No. 1 team nationally in pass-efficiency defense heading into bowl season and No. 8 in both total defense and scoring defense.

His parents, Fallon and Jeff, were with him Monday night in Charlotte, N.C., to see those numbers translate to college football’s most prestigious honor for a defensive player, with Jeff doing so in a wheelchair.

He’s been paralyzed since 2003 from a shooting incident. And never let it get in the way of being a role model for Xavier, even when that meant explaining his condition to his son as the result of bad choices.

“They've been there with me through the whole journey,” Xavier said of his parents. “They’ve kind of guided me and mentored me, showed me love and support through everything that I've been through.

“I just felt like it's a tribute to them for being strong parents and being able to provide me the right advice that I need to be able to stick to this course. Even yesterday, just seeing the smile on their faces and how happy they were about what happened, I mean, this meant the world to them.”

And yet whatever the next backdrop is, the next step will be the same — Xavier Watts following linebacker JD Bertrand’s example of how to be a team leader. And working through some mechanical issues and nuances on the field.

“Probably working on a little bit of man coverage, little ticky-tack things like that,” he said. “And just capitalizing on it. I feel like I still need to capitalize on more plays. I had seven picks this year. I could have had 10 or 11 if I capitalized more on some more opportunities, just different route recognition and stuff. So, just taking those next steps will benefit me even more.”

And so will never taking success for granted.

“I knew I was a good player,” Watts said. “I knew I could play the position and be able to dominate, but this [award] kind of just set new standards and taught me that I can reach anything that I want …

“And I still have a lot more to go.”


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