The only thing more entertaining for T.J. Watt than demolishing the Michigan State backfield for a few hours last Saturday was reading the annotated version later on his phone, blow-by-blow.
They missed that
You’ve got to attack
“They literally narrate every play,” Wisconsin’s junior outside linebacker said with a laugh.
When Watt finally turned on his phone in the minutes following the Badgers’ 30-6 rout of the Spartans in East Lansing, an afternoon that saw him collect 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss, he found more than 75 text messages waiting for him.
Most of them were from his brothers, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and San Diego Chargers fullback Derek Watt, a commentary running like Usain Bolt on Mountain Dew.
Oh my God, how was that not holding
“I watch all of their games, they watch all of my games,” T.J. said. “It’s fun to watch everybody being successful. We know how hard each of us is working in the offseason.”
Better late than never
If his siblings are all thumbs on Saturdays, the youngest of The Flying Watts is all business. The 6-foot-5 linebacker leads the Big Ten in sacks (4.5) through the season’s first four weeks.
“He’s just a powerful, big dude,” Badgers center Michael Deiter said. “He’s quick. He’s athletic. He’s very strong. Hard to get at.”
And hard as hell to move.
“I think we’re going to be able to get back to Wisconsin football, of imposing our will, and I feel like he’s a great example of that,” linebacker Vince Biegel said. “He’s big. He’s a specimen. He’s going to be able to knock people back (to where) we’re going to be able to control that line of scrimmage.”
Watt’s performance at Spartan Stadium, which included two quarterback hurries and one pass breakup, earned him Big Ten Player of Week honors and plaudits from the Walter Camp Football Foundation, which tapped T.J. as its National Defensive Player of the Week — the first such honor for a Badgers player since 2004.
J.J., a 2010 All-American at Wisconsin and a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, never pulled that trick. Neither did middle brother Derek, a Badgers fullback from 2012-2015 who caught his first NFL pass this past Sunday in Indianapolis.
“I’m not going to rub it in their faces, but I’ll definitely take it,” said T.J., who’s collected 5.5 tackles for loss, tied for third among Big Ten defenders. “With having two brothers in the NFL, I’ll take it.”
It’s the baby bro’s burden: How do you carve your own path when the siblings in front of you cut a swath so deep and wide? Comparisons are inevitable, especially on the football front. But when folks tell T.J. he reminds them of J.J., it’s less a pain and more a compliment.
“He’s doing things with such success, I might as well break down what he’s doing and try to mimic his moves on the field,” the youngest Watt said. “People tell us all the time we look the same, have the same mentality.”
T.J. cuts a sinewy figure at 6-5 and 243 pounds. As a redshirt junior in 2010, J.J. was listed at 6-6, 292.
Their father, John Watt, sees the parallels: Same frame, same powerful hips, same broad shoulders, same long arms, same reach, same motor, same quick twitch.
“Derek and T.J. both had such a good mentor to talk to in J.J. and to see what he was doing and just how he worked at everything,” John said. “That certainly instilled the same type of work ethic.”
Unlike Derek, T.J. was more of a late-bloomer. At 13, Dad recalled, he was about 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds sopping wet. As a junior quarterback and linebacker/defensive end at Pewaukee (Wis.) High School, he was up to 6-2, 200-pounds-ish — strong, but not particularly thick.
John used to refer to T.J. as “The Spider,” because he looked “like he was all arms and legs.”
And that was in spite of the family routine of two dinners per night: one at 4:30 p.m. or so, followed by more work, more play, and another meal at roughly 8. The calories consumed could barely keep up with the calories burned.
“I think the most damage in the household was to our pocketbooks,” John chuckled, “trying to keep the refrigerator full.”
Two surgeries, one goal: A comeback
If the family relishes watching T.J. feast, it’s because they remember what it was like to see him starve. As a redshirt freshman tight end, Watt blew out his right knee in August 2014, a setback that scratched his entire season.
In the spring of 2015, because the football gods are malicious buggers, he wound up hurting his left knee, too.
“He’s worked so hard, he’s overcome so much,” mother Connie Watt said. “It’s a big deal to us.”
Two years. Two surgeries. Two knees. Zero quit.
“Whether wearing his brace or screaming in pain because it hurt so bad, to now see him making plays, we know it comes from a place of true happiness,” John said. “So I would say it’s a little more special to see T.J. out there doing the things he’s doing right now … You still worry inside, but every day we get farther away from his surgery, we get a little more confidence this thing is going to continue to go well.”
It was after the second surgery that this thing started to take off. In July 2015, coach Paul Chryst sat T.J. down and asked if he’d like to try outside linebacker on for size.
T.J. pondered. Pass-catcher or pass-rusher? Order or chaos? He pulled up some old clips of J.J. He rang up his parents and both brothers.
“And J.J., he’s like, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got all the tools to be successful,’ ” T.J. recalled. “I don’t know. He might have convinced me a little bit.”
Watt slept on it. The next day, he took a deep breath — and turned the page.
Chaos all the way.
“I realized (that) blocking and having guys fall on me from behind wasn’t the best thing for me, health-wise, on my knees,” T.J. explained. “I just love the mindset: You don’t have to have the ball thrown to you to make a difference. I just love the mentality and the work, the mental reps of going in and getting the quarterback and the other side of the ball.”
Under former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda last fall, T.J. found himself cycled into nickel packages at first. After six or seven weeks, the rotations increased.
“My pad level was terrible, my coverage was terrible,” Watt said. “And just trying to learn from Vince Biegel and (outside linebacker) Joe Schobert, those guys were great mentors for me. I’ve only been in the position for more than a year now … so something like that, it’s constantly learning. Footwork can always get better. Hand placement. There’s always room for improvement.”
From Biegel, he learned to go at every play as if his hairs were on fire. From Schobert, an All-American edge rusher he was being groomed to replace, he learned the finer points of film work, opponent tendencies that could be exploited. From J.J., to whom he’d sometimes send game clips, it was about technique, insider stuff. Watt’s soaked up more in a year than some defenders pick up in three.
“He answered my questions about having the mentality,” John said of T.J. “He’s a tough kid.
“I think it took a while to learn what kind of questions to ask J.J. Once T.J. had an opportunity to really play a few games at that spot and have some experience at it, then he could go back to J.J. and say, ‘What could I do in this situation?’ I can’t say I’ve actually seen them get together in the yard and practicing rush moves, but I can tell you they’re talking on a daily basis.”
T.J. hops on his FaceTime app with Derek and J.J. at least once a week. They text every day. Even game days. Especially game days.
“Just normal stuff, just checking on how things are going,” T.J. said. “Recipes.”
Penne for your thoughts?
“About 40-50 percent” of their group texts, T.J. explained, inevitably circle back to the same thing: food.
“It’s a lot,” Watt said. “ ‘If I’m at this place, what do you usually get?’ We talk about food a lot. We talk about how things are going. Probably 10 percent football.
“Just because (J.J.) is especially trying to instill the idea that you’ve got to have a good diet to be successful.”
After all, you can’t fake an appetite for destruction. And now that he’s had a taste of glory, T.J. is hungry for more of the same.