MADISON – Credit YouTube for changing T.J. Watt’s entire football career.
Stuck in a rut with injuries derailing his reps at tight end, a conversation with head coach Paul Chryst about switching to linebacker led to him sitting down at the computer to watch some defensive highlights of the game’s best players at the position, seeing if it was the right fit for him.
Anyone in particular?
“A couple J.J. Watt,” Watt said, to a room of laughter, citing videos of Von Miller and Lawrence Taylor also impacting him along with his oldest brother.
“I just fell in love with the mentality,” he added. “I came back the next day and I told Coach Chryst, ‘let’s do it!’ It’s been a heck of a year since then.”
Evidently toughness runs in the family business. A little more than a year after changing his football outlook, Watt has become an important component for Wisconsin's defense. Over the last three games, Watt has 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.
Finishing with six tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, and a career-high 2.5 sacks in the 30-6 win at Michigan State, Watt was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation defensive player of the week and the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week.
“I’m always learning the position, but … especially after making like a first play in the game, you definitely build confidence,” Watt said. “Seeing other players make plays, you don’t always get confidence from yourself … I think it’s ongoing. I’ll always be learning.”
Watt’s rise to where he is now has been rapid. He was slowly integrated into the lineup in third-down packages, simply filling a role until his big breakout game at Minnesota last season, where his penchant and comfort with rushing the passer led to a bevy of positive plays for the defense.
Given the departure of Joe Schobert, Watt was given the first opportunity to start opposite Vince Biegel. He’s run with it.
“He’s a great guy to have in the film room, he’s a great guy to have in the position room,” Biegel said. “I like a guy who pushes me. It’s nice to have another complimentary piece at the other outside linebacker who can rush the passer, who is physical and, most importantly, is extremely passionate about the game as I am.”
Chryst said Monday that Watt would still make a great tight end because he’s a really good football player. Since the switch, however, Watt’s long history of knee, ankle and other leg injuries has drastically subsided.
“It’s been fun to see him grow and develop, have success last year and build off that,” Chryst said.
Watt said J.J. didn’t encourage him to switch to defense, a position he’s made a name for himself at the N.F.L. level with the Houston Texans, but T.J. said J.J. told him that he had the “skill set to do it.” The two keep their football conversations to a minimum, but Watt said he’ll occasionally send some videos to his older brother to get his feedback.
With only four starts under his belt, T.J.’s knows there are many things that need tweaking. Breaking down film from Saturday, Watt said there were a lot of plays left on the table, encouraging that there’s a higher ceiling he can grow into.
Leveraging on runs, fine tuning his pass coverage and footwork and playing with a lower pad level – an extra challenge because he’s listed at 6-5 – are the main points. One thing that he has never had to change, however, is the mindset.
“I love getting after the ball, getting after the passer and just making plays when my number doesn’t have to be called,” Watt said. “I always say playing tight end you have to wait for the ball to be thrown, you have to wait for the ball to be run to your side to really have an impact. As a defender, you don’t have to be blitzing to make a tackle or make a pass breakup.”
Added Biegel: “He’s a hard working guy. All offseason, in the weight room, in the spring practices, in the grind season, he’s right at the top, and that’s what you want.”
Depth Chart Musings
Redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook is listed as the starter on the depth chart for the first time this season, no real surprise after his performance in the 30-6 win at No.8 Michigan State. Hornibrook finished 16-for-26 for 195 yards, a touchdown and an interception, but was 9-for-12 for 136 yards on third down and 6-for-6 on third-and-10 or longer. His performance earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
“I thought he did a great job in each day preparing,” Chryst said. “That takes times. There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s knowing your opponent, it’s knowing your game plan and being able to go out and execute it.”
Although no longer listed on the injury report with his foot injury, Micah Kapoi is listed as the backup left guard, right guard and center this week. UW lists Michael Deiter as the starter at left guard and the Brett Connors – who made his first career start Saturday – as the starting center.
“I thought (Brett) did some good things,” Chryst said. “Certainly got a number of areas where he can get better, but certainly appreciated the work that he put into it and the preparation … I thought it was good getting (Michael) at the guard spot. As a team we did some good things, gave us a chance to win.”
After a 41-yard kickoff return against Georgia State and an 18 and 19 yard return at Michigan State, tailback Dare Ogunbowale is listed as the No.1 kickoff returner for UW. Receivers A.J. Taylor and George Rushing are listed as the co-backups. Tailback Corey Clement is no longer listed at the position.
Orr Still Impacting
Although he’s out for the season with a knee injury, injured on the first defensive play of the season nonetheless, sophomore inside linebacker Chris Orr still is finding ways of influencing the defense. Wearing a headset during the games, Orr has been helping relay communications between the defensive coaches and the linebackers. Needless to say, he’s been pretty animated.
“I’ve always been impressed with Chris’ knowledge of the game,” Chryst said. “He has been helpful. It’s been good for everyone. I think it’s been good for Chris.”
Extra Points: Only three players were listed on Monday’s injury as questionable: OL Jon Dietzen (right leg), K Rafael Gaglianone (back) and RB Bradrick Shaw (right shoulder) … Chryst said “there’s always a plan” when going for it on fourth down but those kind of decisions can’t be scripted out. “You have an idea of what you need to do to give your team the best chance. It depends on how the kids are doing and that the opponent is doing.” UW was 2-for-2 on fourth down during its first first-quarter scoring drive Saturday … Chryst said he has not eaten the new Babcock Ice Cream named after him (Chocolate Chryst) but said that “if it’s Babcock, I’m sure it’s good.”