Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts enjoyed a breakout season for the Irish. His exploits did not go unnoticed. Named a first team All American by CBS Sports and The Athletic this week, Watts won the Bronko Nagurski Award on Monday. The honor is given to the nation’s top defensive player by the Football Writers Association of America. Other finalists included Iowa cornerback Cooper DeJean, Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton, Georgia safety Malaki Starks, and North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson.
Watts became just the second Notre Dame player to win the Nagurski Trophy. The only other Notre Dame player to achieve the honor was Manti Te’o, who received the award in 2012. Watts is just the second safety to win the award, following Oklahoma’s Roy Williams in 2001. Watts started his career as a wide receiver. He moved from offense to the rover position before finally switching to the safety position in 2022.
“It means a lot, especially with the journey I have been through,” Watts told the Associated Press. “I have played offense, I’ve played defense, and I’ve kind of bounced around and tried to find a spot to fit on the field my whole career. So, this is a tribute to all the hard work I did and everything coming together.”
A Stellar Season for the Shutdown Safety
The game-changing defender with a nose for the ball has an FBS-leading seven interceptions for the Fighting Irish. Watts had two interceptions against both USC and Pittsburgh, becoming the first Irish player to pick off two passes in consecutive games since 1996. Both the picks of Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams of USC set up Irish touchdowns. A one-man wrecking crew against the Trojans, Watts closed out the win against USC with a returned fumble touchdown of his own in that 48-20 win. All seven of Watts’ interceptions led to points. Five went for touchdowns and two ended with Irish field goals. As a result of his performance against USC, Watts’ performance earned Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and the Bronko Nagurski National Player of the Week honors for his effort against the Trojans.
“Last season I missed out on a few plays, and I would be laying in bed just thinking about them all night,” Watts shared. ‘So, my goal coming into the season was not to make those same mistakes and just come out and ball out. That is pretty much what I’ve done.”
Watts anchored a stubborn Irish defense this season. Notre Dame finished in the Top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, and yards allowed per play. The unit ranked fourth in pass defense, second in lowest completion percentage allowed, and led the nation in passer rating. Watts was a big reason why.
Decision Looming for Xavier Watts
While his NFL stock has unquestionably risen with his on-field performances, Watts has not declared if he will enter the 2024 NFL draft. Watts graduated from Notre Dame in May, but he has two seasons of athletic eligibility remaining, suggesting he is likely to return. He redshirted in 2020 and has a Covid year exemption. He has already said that he is going to play in the Sun Bowl.
“Yes, I will be playing in the bowl game,” Watts told Sports Illustrated. “I just kind of want to play football regardless. I mean, even if I was maybe to decide to go to the draft, I think I’d probably lean towards playing the game anyway because it’s your last time around all the same guys that you’re going to be with. It’s the last time as the 2023 Fighting Irish.”
Playing against No. 19 Oregon State in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 29, Watts will have a golden opportunity to add to his impressive 2023 stats. In the Sun Bowl, Notre Dame’s defense will be facing Oregon State’s third-string quarterback Ben Gulbranson. Oregon State’s two other quarterbacks are in the transfer portal.
Next Level Talent
Watts has a high ceiling and more room to grow if he is to return to Notre Dame. The converted wide receiver could be a key cog for the Irish next season, especially with Notre Dame losing a lot of veteran players this season. An additional season at Notre Dame time would also allow Watts time to further develop into a top NFL prospect. A versatile and tenacious defender, Watts has been a star for the Irish this year. Whether he makes the leap to the NFL or returns to anchor the Irish defense for another season remains to be seen. Either way, Xavier Watts is clearly equipped with the attributes to be a difference-maker at the next level.