Watt’s drive, intelligence set him apart

J.J. Watt understands the perilous position Wisconsin football fans will face Sunday night better than most. He knows it’s considered borderline sacrilegious to cheer for one of your own when it comes at the expense of your favorite team.

Still, the Pewaukee, Wis., native and former University of Wisconsin defensive end standout believes he’ll have support back home — even if his Houston Texans (5-0) will be trying to beat the tar out of the beloved Green Bay Packers (2-3).

“I think any other game of the year, they’ll tell you that they’re rooting for me,” Watt told Green Bay reporters on a conference call this week. “But I understand you’re a Packers fan in Wisconsin. Ninety-nine percent of the state is going to be rooting for the Packers, and that’s fine. But I also know there’s a lot of people that are rooting for me and hoping I do well.”

Frankly, what’s not to cheer about Watt’s NFL accomplishments so far?

Watt has combined God-given athletic ability with relentless focus and hard work, transforming himself into an unstoppable 6-foot-5, 295-pound force in the pros. Through five games of his second season, Watt ranks second in the league in sacks with 7.5, trailing only Green Bay’s Clay Matthews, who has eight. Watt has 11 tackles for a loss and an astonishing eight pass deflections, tied for the league lead, even though he plays a position that rarely emphasizes deflecting passes.

“With practice, you start to learn little intricacies about how to block balls and when a quarterback is going to throw, where he’s looking and stuff like that,” Watt said. “But it’s just a lot of practice.”

If there’s one thing Watt has excelled at over the years, it’s treating practice with the utmost respect, using every repetition to hone his craft.

Wisconsin defensive line coach Charlie Partridge joined the program in 2008 — the same year Watt transferred to Wisconsin from Central Michigan. Watt played tight end for the Chippewas but eventually moved to defensive line at Wisconsin. His first year with the Badgers, he was named defensive player of the year on the scout team.

Partridge described Watt’s skills at the position as raw because he hadn’t been taught proper technique. The two worked on basic elements, including stance and explosive steps off the line.

What separated Watt from others, among many traits, was his ability to understand concepts instantly. By the time he was a redshirt junior, he led the team in tackles for loss, sacks, quarterback hurries, forced fumbles and blocked kicks. He was a bona fide first-round NFL draft pick, and the Texans selected him No. 11 overall in 2011.

“You didn’t have to coach him on many things twice because once you told him, he got it,” Partridge said. “So you could move along in that progression very fast with him. By the time he got out of here with really two and a half years of d-line, he probably had four years worth of coaching. Because you didn’t have to repeat any coaching.”

Badgers defensive end Brendan Kelly, a fifth-year senior who played three seasons with Watt, described Watt’s drive to succeed as unparalleled in the program.

“A lot of guys settle for being just good, but J.J. was the type of guy who was always striving to be better,” Kelly said. “Even now with all his sacks in the NFL, he doesn’t have one bit of contentment in his body. It’s all about getting better and what are you going to do now?

“That’s something that affected all of us. We saw that type of drive, and we all got on the train and started to push ourselves to be better.”

Those traits have continued into the NFL. Watt was so dominant in September that he was voted the AFC Defensive Player of the Month. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden has even begun calling him “J.J. Swatt.”

Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema recalled a story he heard earlier this season that an opposing player — Tennessee Titans guard Leroy Harris — said there was nothing special about Watt.

“The guy that he was going against that week made a comment that J.J. wasn’t really that special — he just played harder and longer than everybody else,” Bielema said. “And I’m like, yeah, exactly. Point taken. That’s why he’s better than most people. He waits for you to have one moment of weakness, and he’ll capitalize on it.” 

Watt was certainly good as a rookie — he tallied 5.5 sacks during the regular season — but Texans coach Gary Kubiak noticed that something clicked during the team’s two-game playoff run. He recorded 3.5 sacks in those two games and intercepted a pass for a touchdown to propel Houston to its first-ever playoff victory, against Cincinnati in an AFC wild-card game.

“He was exceptional in the playoffs last year,” Kubiak told Green Bay reporters this week. “If you look at the two playoff games, he played a lot like he’s played these first five weeks. He was growing as a player. …

“I think one of the things he’s doing really well is he’s learning preparation week in and week out, who he’s playing against, what they do, their schemes. I think he’s really becoming a pro, and it’s helping him be even more productive on the field.”

Even while taking the NFL by storm, Watt still maintains his Wisconsin roots. One of his younger brothers, Derek, is a freshman fullback for the Badgers. J.J. showed up for Wisconsin’s Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Iowa just to see him play. One night earlier, he was in Pewaukee to see his youngest brother, T.J., play his high school football game. He also returns home during the offseason for two months to train.

“I’m all up in the Wisconsin football landscape,” Watt said.

This week, all eyes across Wisconsin will be trained on him when the Texans host the Packers at Reliant Stadium. Aside from the obvious, he should have even more incentive to sack Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The Elias Sports Bureau, the company that keeps official statistics for the NFL, took a sack away from Watt this week. The company ruled that Watt did not sack Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in a season opening 30-10 victory because it was a designed running play.

As a result, Watt trails Matthews for the league lead by half a sack.

Surely, there are more sacks to come because Watt has been scary good this season. And for those offensive linemen and quarterbacks around the league, here’s an even scarier thought:

“I’m only five games into my second season,” Watt said. “I’m nowhere near as good as I’m going to get.”

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