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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 82 Xavier Watts, sophomore receiver

Xavier Watts Notre Dame

Listed measurements: 5-foot-11 ¾, 199 pounds.2021-22 year, eligibility: A sophomore, Watts played in only two games in 2020, so with or without the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, he would have four seasons of eligibility remaining.Depth Chart: While Notre Dame has a bounty of questions at receiver, it may have the most answers at Watts’ presumed position of slot receiver. Both fifth-year Avery Davis and senior Lawrence Keys impressed this spring, to such an extent the Irish may need to move Keys to the field position to get both in play at the same time. That may move Watts up the depth chart a rung, but otherwise, he is competing with early-enrolled freshman Lorenzo Styles for rotational snaps.Recruiting: The consensus three-star recruit’s decision came down to Notre Dame or his homestate Nebraska. More than half the Big 10 pursued the Omaha product and No. 90 receiver in the class of 2020, per, as did Tennessee, Louisville and Iowa State.

Watts played in the 52-0 Irish blowout of South Florida as well as against Florida State, the two games that bookended Notre Dame’s coronavirus outbreak, thus making reserves all that much more needed.

In retrospect, particularly now that we have seen the coast-to-coast billboard campaign pushed by Irish recruiting, Notre Dame’s assisting/accommodating players with the propagation of springtime highlights may have been a harbinger of the University’s embrace of coming name, image and likeness legislation.

It is not that early-enrolled freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner would never have posted a clip of him connecting with Watts in the past, it is that he would not have had immediate access to it after that morning’s practice, complete with a monogram watermark.

Will there someday be a route to Buchner and/or Watts monetizing such a clip? Perhaps not directly, but simply by doling out these highlights, the players enhance their social media platforms, and as much as the NIL discussion has hinged on car dealerships and local pizza joints, most players are more likely to make not insignificant money by best utilizing their social media accounts.

One of three receivers in the class of 2020, none of which contributed in the pandemic-altered season, it would have been harder than ever for Watts, Jordan Johnson or Jay Brunelle to make an impact in 2020. With no spring practice, limited (at best) summer strength and conditioning work, and a truncated fall, understanding the playbook enough to establish chemistry with a third-year starter at quarterback was always going to be a tough ask. Add in the usual hurdles when reaching college, and the expectations of the trio were probably too high. (Obviously, this pertains particularly to Johnson.)

“Some of those young guys are doing — Jordan Johnson is doing a nice job, Xavier and Jay Brunelle, those guys have done a really nice job for us, as well,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said before the 2020 season. “It’s just that those guys are young, so it’s a matter of them continuing to get reps.”

The effort to get those reps for Watts was interrupted this spring by a quad contusion, a trend so far for the young receiver.

“With X, we really like his work when he’s out there, but he’s been kind of plagued by some nagging injuries,” Kelly said before the Blue-Gold Game. “So we’re hopeful that he gets out there and he’s able to have a great spring game. We like his body of work. I know he’s frustrated, too. It just hasn’t been consistent enough.”

Watts made one catch for no gain in the spring finale, his only target.

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN WATTS SIGNED“Watts may be underrated, but he still needs development, and 2020 will be a season spent on the scout team for him. That will actually begin in the spring as an early enrollee. …

“When the class of 2018, as in Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, Kevin Austin and Joe Wilkins, moves through the program, every receiver behind them will get a chance. That will come a year earlier for these recruits than usual, given the class of 2019 included just two receivers, neither of which was heralded or all-that committed to the position coming out of high school.”

Notre Dame’s uncertainty at receiver will end up to someone’s benefit. Of the 10 receivers on the roster, from a sheer numbers perspective, some receiver or two will break through. Simple logic suggests that is more likely to be one of the four seniors and not one of the two remaining sophomores, but that latter thought cannot be ruled out.

Watts will get a chance at that, if nothing else, presuming he can stay healthy. His natural hands and comfort chasing a deep ball — exhibited both in that pass from Buchner and in his work as a defensive back in high school — make it clear Watts has collegiate talent. It very well may be he simply needs to find health for a sustained stretch.

The odds are, though, Watts will provide depth in 2021, especially since slot receiver is the only established position in the group, and more obvious candidates have shown some flashes in their careers at both field (senior Braden Lenzy) and boundary (senior Joe Wilkins; theoretically senior Kevin Austin).

DOWN THE ROADAll four of the current Irish seniors have three (3!) years of eligibility remaining. While it is unlikely all four return to Notre Dame in 2022, let alone 2023, one or two might. That will handicap how quickly Watts can move into a prominent role.

At the same time, those four seniors have not established themselves yet. Injury issues similar to Watts’ have long slowed Lenzy and Keys, and Austin has not played a full season of football since 2017. There is little assurance any of them will do enough in 2021 to demand a fifth-year offer in 2022.

Such is the paradox of the Irish receivers corps. There is undoubtedly talent afoot, including Watts, but with none of it elevating above the rest, figuring out the timeline for any of it is little more than a guessing game.

Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback
No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon
No. 85 George Takacs, senior tight end, ‘152 years old’
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, sophomore tight end

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