T.J. Watt has been playing outside linebacker for less than a year, but it’s hard to argue that the redshirt junior doesn’t look like a natural at the position. Switching over from tight end during last year’s fall camp, Watt utilized his length and athleticism to carve out a niche for himself in certain defensive packages. By the end of the year, Watt had turned himself into a bona fide pass rusher, creating havoc on quarterbacks that led to positive plays for the defense. Therefore, with the graduation of Joe Schobert, it shouldn’t be a surprise then that the Wisconsin staff gave him the first crack at being the starter at the boundary linebacker position.
Stats: Eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries and three pass breakups in 2015.
Strengths: The length Watt possesses for a linebacker is prototypical, as his 6-5 size helps him in passing situations. It is no surprise then that Watt uses that skill to his advantage by finding ways of being able to alter passes at the line of scrimmage, a trait that proved to play an important role in the Minnesota game. As he continues to understand pass coverage and matures more into the position, his length will only be able to help him make more plays for Wisconsin’s defense. Watt is a disciplined player and can use his hands to help him disengage from blockers to help make a play.
Weaknesses: With this being Watt’s second year of playing the linebacker position, he is still raw and in the leaning stages, even though he received significant reps in certain situations toward the end of last season. Most those were on passing downs, however, as Watt’s main weakness is run coverage. Practicing with the starting unit during spring will help Watt become more comfortable at his position and recognizing run fits. Once the game starts to slow down for him he will be able to read and react.
Why he’s #17: Although Watt may didn’t make a big statistical impact on the game, he still influenced it in other areas. As he continues to gain comfort and go through film study, Watt will certainly be able to find a way to make more individual plays. With senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel sliding over to take Schobert’s positions to make room for Watt, Watt will need to have a productive season in order to balance out the defense. If Watt can consistently get the better leverage, shed blockers and disrupt plays, it will make Biegel’s job easier and could make the duo a lethal combination.
Overall: Taking advantage of his first offseason working as an outside linebacker, Watt aggressively approached the spring to develop into a well-rounded linebacker, opposed to only being a situational player. The big key for Watt is he was given first-team reps throughout spring, helping him to gain a comfort within the defense and with the unit around him. Without question he showed he belonged, as his rapid development was praised by Biegel and outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar.
When a player makes a position switch, like Watt did last summer, it usually takes a player some time to adjust to the new position. But even though it wasn’t a seamless transition for Watt at first, he still finished third on the team in quarterback hurries (four).
With the experience he gained since making the position change, Watt is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential and show what he’s capable of. If Watt has made a similar jump from spring to fall like he did from the end of the season to spring, it is exciting to think about where he is as a player now, where he could be when the season concludes and how tough it will be for opponents to keep him and Vince Biegel out of the backfield.