Notre Dame's Watts wins 2023 Bronko Nagurski Trophy

Xavier Watts is the second Notre Dame player to win the FWAA’s Bronko Nagurski Trophy
Xavier Watts is the second Notre Dame player to win the FWAA’s Bronko Nagurski Trophy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FWAA) – Sparked by a tremendous set of midseason games that has since paced his team into the postseason, Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts has earned the 2023 Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player as selected by the Football Writers Association of America and presented by the Charlotte Touchdown Club. The nation’s interceptions leader was honored Monday night with the award at a gala event before a sellout crowd of 1,500 here.

Watts, a 5-11, 204-pound junior from Omaha, Neb., is the second Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner from Notre Dame and the first in 11 seasons, following linebacker Manti Te’o in 2012. Watts was chosen from a finalist field that included Iowa cornerback Cooper DeJean, Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton, Georgia safety Malaki Starks and N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson.

"It's crazy, it's great," said Watts, who talked about his roundabout career road at numerous positions before winding up at safety and claiming one of college football's top awards.   

Watts was honored twice as the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for games this season. He leads the nation with seven interceptions and is the first Notre Dame player to post multiple interceptions in consecutive games, the first FBS player to do it since 2020 and just the fifth FBS player to accomplish the feat since 2017.

Watts, who began his Notre Dame career as a wide receiver before moving to the secondary last year, has been a playmaker all season. Watts’ seven interceptions include one pick-six and set the Irish offense up in position to score 41 points, just under 10 percent of the Irish’s 469 points on the season.

He was the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for games the weekend of Oct. 14 following a two-interception game against USC. He is the only FBS player to have two multi-interception games this season and leads a Notre Dame defense that is fourth in the FBS, currently giving up 154.2 passing yards per game.

Watts' interceptions account for almost half of Notre Dame’s 15 total interceptions, a team statistic that ties for ninth among all FBS teams. Watts has 47 tackles to lead the Notre Dame secondary and tie for fourth on the team.

The USC game in front of a primetime audience was Watts' first standout game and put his name into national prominence. Watts made an immediate impact with his first of two interceptions on USC’s opening drive, where his 38-yard return to the USC 12 led to the Irish’s first touchdown and set the tone for Notre Dame in the 48-20 win. The next pick came in the second quarter, which he returned 23 yards to the USC 2. Notre Dame scored on the next play. Late in the game Watts scooped up a fumble and returned it 15 yards for the Irish’s final score. He also forced a fumble on USC’s final drive.

Two weeks later, Watts picked off two more passes against a Pitt offense that had only thrown five going into the game, and posted three tackles and a TFL to earn the weekly honor a second time. Watts is the first player in 11 seasons to earn the Bronko Nagurski Player of the Week honor twice in the same season (last was Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones in 2012) and is one of only three players (with Arkansas linebacker Jermaine Petty in 2001) to ever do so in the award's 23 seasons.

Notre Dame’s defense leads the nation in pass efficiency defense (94.91), is second in red zone defense (.706), is tied for sixth in defensive touchdowns (four, including one from Watts), is eighth in total defense (282.9 ypg), is tied for eighth in scoring defense (16.6 ppg) and is tied for 13th in turnovers gained (23, with just over one-third of it from Watts' 8).

In addition to Te’o winning the 2012 trophy as Notre Dame’s lone previous winner, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was a finalist in 2020, as was cornerback Shane Walton in 2002.

Notre Dame (9-3) faces Oregon State (8-4) in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl on Fri., Dec. 29, at 2 p.m. ET on CBS.

The FWAA has chosen a National Defensive Player of the Year since 1993. In 1995, the FWAA named the award in honor of the legendary two-way player from the University of Minnesota. Nagurski dominated college football, then became a star for professional football’s Chicago Bears in the 1930s. Bronislaw "Bronko" Nagurski is a charter member of both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

The Bronko Nagurski Trophy is a member of the National College Football Awards Association. Founded in 1997, the NCFAA includes college football’s most prestigious awards and its 24 awards have honored more than 900 recipients dating back to 1935. For more information about the NCFAA and its award programs, visit the redesigned or follow on X at @NCFAA.

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