There are few bigger challenges for a defensive back than facing a quarterback who is the defending Heisman Trophy winner. The Irish secondary Xavier Watts faced just that when matched up against USC’s Caleb Williams, who led an inconsistent yet undefeated team. In 2022, Williams gashed Notre Dame with his arm and his legs in a 38-point outburst, resulting in a USC victory. The packed stadium yearned for a sign that Williams’ second performance against the Irish wouldn’t bring more of the same.
It took just four plays for that sign to come. And, as the night progressed, that early turning point meant another Trojans-Irish clash would be a key marker in a player’s quest for individual hardware. Williams’ excellent Week 13 performance in 2022 helped secure his Heisman. Xavier Watts’ two-interception contest, the first of which came just two minutes into the game, was the shining moment of Watts’ 2023 season, which earned him the Bronko Nagurski Award — the defensive equivalent of the Heisman.
“It was kind of emotional,” Watts said of winning the award. “I didn't really show it, but it was a lot of excitement and it was kind of shocking… The journey I've been through, it has been difficult, and just get to that point where I'll be able to be recognized as one of the best or ‘the best defender in the nation.’ That is just unreal.”
Watts’ journey to stardom certainly wasn’t traditional. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Watts redshirted his freshman season and didn’t start a single game as a sophomore. He was originally a three-star recruit… as a wide receiver.
But Watts has steadily improved during his four years in South Bend. He took the move to safety in stride, although it took a while before he got accustomed to the position. The switch to defense forced Watts to make adjustments and learn new skills, but it didn’t stop him from catching passes. Watts intercepted seven passes during the 2023 season, leading the country and recording the most of any Irish player since Manti Te’o in 2012.
While the USC game may have been the peak of Watts’ season, it was hardly his only impact performance. He notched multiple tackles in each of Notre Dame’s 13 games, including five games with at least five tackles. His first show-stopping moment was a fourth-quarter interception against North Carolina State that set up the eventual game-winning touchdown in Notre Dame’s first contest of the season against a Power 5 foe.
It was also Watts’ first collegiate interception — another reminder of the unique, winding road that led him to being a starter at the safety position. Three weeks later, he notched his second, picking off his now-teammate Riley Leonard in a tight victory over Duke where every play mattered.
The USC game a few weeks later was special not just because of what Watts accomplished that night but how he followed it up. That game began a three-week span where Watts intercepted five passes. He had two picks the next game against Pitt, then another in Clemson that set up an early second-half touchdown the Irish offense desperately needed.
Watts will return to Notre Dame for a fifth season in 2024, poised to be even more of a leader for the Fighting Irish.