MADISON, Wis. — Derek Watt gripped and sipped a plastic cup of sludge after practice on Monday. Or, more specifically, a brightly colored, thick protein shake blend that reeked of peanut butter.
In the crucial months between football seasons, Watt is learning the importance of calories and weight gain from Wisconsin’s trainers and nutritionists. Developing the right kind of bulk is especially vital now that he plays one of the most punishing positions in football.
“We have bags of snacks throughout the day they give us for keeping calorie intake in,” Watt said. “I’ve gained about eight pounds since last fall. I’m trying to gain five more pounds of good weight by summer.”
Wisconsin completed its seventh spring practice of the season Monday, and Watt continues to show himself as the team’s top fullback. He also continues to demonstrate his willingness to change his body composition in an effort to be even better as his redshirt sophomore season approaches.
Last year, Watt essentially was thrown into the position midway through fall practices with no room to come up for air. He had spent his redshirt season and the beginning of fall as a linebacker. Initially, Watt shared playing time at fullback with Sherard Cadogan but quickly earned the starting position full-time because of his ability to pick up coaching details and his natural instincts.
Even as he turned heads on the field for being such a quick study, Watt noticed he simply wasn’t big enough to be as effective as he wanted. The head placement on his blocks was there, but he couldn’t generate the kind of movement coaches wanted to push back his defender.
“That’s why I put on a little weight and I’ve got to keep getting bigger,” Watt said. “It’s one of those things you’ve got to put weight on, drive your feet, get that movement and make holes for the running back.”
The 6-foot-2 Watt says he now weighs about 230 pounds. As a means of comparison, his predecessor at Wisconsin, 6-foot Bradie Ewing, weighed 245 pounds during his senior season and went on to be drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.
“I think Derek has an excellent skillset, but he has to be a much more physical player now in his second year playing the position than he was in his first year,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. “You can anticipate that happening as a player matures and grows. What we do offensively with the fullback, it’s one of the most violent positions in football. That’s what we’re looking for from Derek, and he’s responded well to those challenges in the spring and we’re looking to continue to develop him.”
Although Watt has plenty he wants to learn as a fullback, his ability to adapt and excel at the highest levels of college football despite competing at a position he had never played should say something about his talent. In high school, Watt rarely had to worry about blocking because he was too busy playing so many other positions. He played running back, linebacker, kicker, punter and kick returner and was named the Associated Press state player of the year in Wisconsin.
Watt’s switch to the other side of the ball is reminiscent of the situation his older brother, J.J. Watt, endured in college. J.J. Watt began his career as a tight end at Central Michigan and developed into one of the most dominant defensive linemen in college football after transferring to Wisconsin.
Derek Watt is hopeful his transition can result in a similar production increase.
“Any time somebody changes positions, it’s a new challenge,” Watt said. “I took it as a new opportunity. Once I started in there, I kind of felt comfortable and was blessed to be able to pick it up so quickly and roll with it. It felt good.”
Generally speaking, the fullback ranks alongside an offensive lineman in the battle for which person plays the most thankless position on offense, never touching the ball and only being seen after making a mistake. But Watt could see a significantly bigger role within the offense under Ludwig and first-year head coach Gary Andersen’s scheme.
Last season, Watt caught 12 passes for 150 yards, and the Badgers are likely to pass more this season. During Monday’s practice, Watt also could be seen taking handoffs in third-down scenarios. A year ago, he didn’t carry the ball once all season.
“It’s good to show they’re giving me a shot at least and giving me an opportunity to carry the ball and do what I can,” Watt said. “It’s just good to feel they can trust me like that.”
Added Ludwig: “He’s responded to it very well. It’s basically doubling his workload. We’re in the evaluation process right now. We really like the way he’s come along.”
On the field and in the meal room, Watt is headed in the right direction.