HOUSTON - Regarded as one of the hardest working players in the NFL, and one of the league’s top defensive players, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt had a desire to finally take a mini break from his year around workout regime.
Having a desire to travel Europe and not wanting to go alone, the former Wisconsin second-team All-American planned out the trip’s complex itinerary, wrapped up his plan under the Christmas tree and gave it to his two brothers, Wisconsin junior fullback Derek Watt and redshirt freshman tight end T.J. Watt, as a surprise.
“It was breathtaking, just incredible,” said Derek Watt. “It was a relaxing trip, a brother trip.”
That trip, along with many other things this offseason, have set the tone for Watt entering this season, where he figures to a big part in the success as the team’s starting fullback and occasional tight end in the offensive scheme when No.14 Wisconsin opens against No.13 LSU at NRG Stadium here tomorrow night.
“He’s a rare talent because he’s a very smart fullback,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “He’s not just ramming it in there. His ability to read the block, be physical when he needs to be and can leverage people the correct way, kind of sets blocks up as a fullback. He does have tremendous hands. He’s a very good athlete and has proven to catch the ball very, very well.”
Athleticism runs throughout the Watt family. J.J. was a multi-sport athlete in high school, including a love for playing hockey, and started out as a college tight end before transferring to Wisconsin and transforming into an All-Pro.
Derek came to Wisconsin as a linebacker before being switched to fullback three weeks before the 2012 season. He’s been the team’s starter there ever since.
Although he was always set to play tight end with the Badgers, T.J. played quarterback and worked on defense his senior year, throwing for 527 yards and seven touchdowns, rushing for 554 yards and nine touchdowns and recording 42 tackles and five sacks as a senior.
They all played for Pewaukee High School, all are elite athletes and all have a very close-knit connection to one another, which was evident on their two-week adventure through Europe.
Squats and Sightseeing
Leaving the parents at home, the Watts spent three days in Ireland, England, France and Italy, taking in European culture and exploring such landmarks as the Colosseum in Rome, Eifle Tower in Paris and Parliament in London. But before the fun could begin, the Watts had one important thing to do nearly every morning; they had to get in a good workout.
“You can’t take completely off,” said Derek. “The season just ended. We all know what we’re working for, so we got a little extra work in as well. We were over there to have fun and take some time off, but we wanted to get better.”
Hotel gyms are hit and miss no matter what country you stay in, as the Watt boys found out. In London, their gym had free weights, a squat rack and dumbbells, all while overlooked Big Ben.
“There’s not much more motivation than that,” said Derek.
It was the exact opposite in Paris. Up at 5 a.m. because of all the travel and time changes, the Watts went to that gym to find two treadmills and an abs cruncher. The group called an audible instead, going for a jog down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe (pictured above).
“That was awesome,” said Derek.
But more important that the workouts and the sights, the opportunity for the brothers to spend extended time together as a group for the first time in years was the real highlight of the journey.
“It has been a long, long time since it was just the three of us together all day every day doing whatever we wanted together,” said Derek. “Just talking, catching up, having fun and getting some culture and knowledge, as well.”
Setting the Tone
Following the January trip, Watt returned to a Wisconsin program that was anxious to reinvent his game. As a freshman, Watt played in all 14 games for the Badgers. In addition to his responsibilities as a pass blocker and occasional ball carrier, Watt was a reliable part of the passing game, catching 15 passes for 170 yards and one touchdown.
Last season with the new coaching staff, Watt had only four touches for 28 total yards and a touchdown.
“I can’t really complain because I was hurt for a couple games and coming off an injury, so that’s on me,” said Watt of his decreased numbers. “You want to be trusted, you want to have opportunities to get the ball in your hand, but at the end of the day I’m just trying to be on the field and help out my team.”
With the coaching staff choosing to expand his repertoire in the spring to see if he could handle an additional workload, the 6-2, 236-pound Watt showed he was athletic enough to be a H-back (split out to the near edge of the formation) or play tight end on the line of scrimmage to be more involved in the offense, a skill that came with having more position and one-on-one meetings with tight end coach Jeff Genyk than new running back coach Thomas Brown.
The Badgers lost three tight ends off last year’s roster and have a wealth of young talent at the position, but the thought of a running back/fullback/tight end combo was more appealing for opposing defenses to try and scheme against than a true running back/fullback.
“To have a player of his caliber only play fullback and only play 10-to-15 snaps a game, and get the ball one time or less a game, is not appropriate for his skill set,” said Genyk. “By him playing and being in the tight end room, he can play 40 or 50 snaps on offense and hopefully get the ball 2-to-5 times a game, as well as having a big role on special teams. We know how we’re going to use him and it’s going to be a challenge for defensive coordinators.”
Watt will likely play a big part with his ability to line up in different formations and different positions, either creating running lanes for Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement or catching passes in the middle of LSU’s athletic defense.
“It’s definitely an honor and a privilege for them to be willing enough to trust me and rely on me in those situations,” said Watt. “To be honest, I personally know four positions – running back, fullback, U- tight end and H-tight end. There’s four positions I am juggling right now and trying to learn. I’m trying to be as versatile as possible and want to stay on the field as much as possible.”
Big Brother’s Backyard
Just like running through the streets of Paris this past winter, Watt used the word “awesome” to describe the opportunity to open the season in J.J.’s home stadium. Not only will the Watt family be out in full force, J.J. is hosting a Badgers tailgate prior to the game and will be one of the honorary captains.
Having looked up to his oldest brother for many years, Watt is starting to become a chip off his old brother’s block.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better role model,” Watt said of J.J. “I would like to say T.J. can say the same thing about me in the future, but we couldn’t have asked for anything more. He’s been a great older brother, a great player on and off the field with his work ethic. The articles and stories people are doing about him now are not blown out of proportion one bit. That’s who he is day-in and day-out basis. He will sacrifice whatever it takes and put in any extra work to accomplish his goals, and it makes me want to do that much more.”