Watt provides spark for Wisconsin D-line

April, 23, 2009
4/23/09
11:15
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

J.J. Watt's long, strange journey back to Wisconsin was almost complete, as head coach Bret Bielema offered him a chance to walk onto the Badgers' team. 

Watt just had one final item to address. 

"I had to look at his contract to make sure everything was OK," Watt said, laughing. 

You couldn't blame him for checking. Watt didn't exactly have the best luck with coaches early in his college career. 

The Pewaukee, Wis., native originally committed to Central Michigan, but reopened his recruitment after head coach Brian Kelly left for Cincinnati. Watt then committed to Minnesota in mid-December, only to see the axe fall on Gophers head coach Glen Mason two weeks later. 

He wound up back at Central Michigan and played in all 14 games as a true freshman tight end in 2007, catching eight passes for 77 yards. But with the tight end position not the focal point of Butch Jones' offense, Watt decided to return to familiar surroundings and a familiar position -- defensive end.

"It was definitely a crazy process I went through," Watt said, "but in the end it worked out for me, so I can't complain. Now I'm in a great position."

His arrival also has worked out well for Wisconsin, which loses three multiyear starters on the defensive line (end Matt Shaughnessy and tackles Mike Newkirk and Jason Chapman).

Watt stood out during spring ball and all but locked up a starting position on the defensive line for 2009. Named the Badgers' defensive scout team player of the year last fall, Watt continued to impress the coaches and was rewarded with a scholarship Friday night, hours before the spring game.

"He's a beast, man," said senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield, echoing the term defensive coordinator Dave Doeren used to describe Watt. "You see all the potential. He does all the right things that the coaches teach."

Though Watt went to Central Michigan as a tight end, he did most of his damage in high school at the defensive end spot, racking up 18 sacks and 44.5 tackles for loss. It didn't take long to readjust to the techniques of the position.

Watt's big adjustment was getting big enough to play on the line again.

"I left high school at 6-foot-4, 228, and I'm 6-foot-6, 285 now," he said. "And I left Central Michigan at about 245, so I've put on about 40 pounds since then."

He packed on the pounds during a semester spent at home between Central Michigan and Wisconsin. His mom's home-cooked meals spurred the process, and Watt gorged on steak, PB&J and milkshakes.

"I had the diet everyone wants to be on," he said.

After arriving at Wisconsin, Watt focused on molding his increased mass into muscle. He credits Badgers' new head strength coach Ben Herbert for helping him improve in the weight room. 

Watt currently bench presses between 430 and 440 pounds, squats between 520 and 540 pounds and power cleans approximately 400 pounds. When he left Central Michigan, he could do 19 bench press repetitions at 225 pounds. By the end of last season, he was up to 29 reps.

The scary thing is Watt can get bigger. He did a body frame analysis at Wisconsin and was told he could play at 300-315 pounds, though he plans to remain at 285.

"My main thing is power," Watt said. "I bring a lot of strength because I work hard in the weight room and it really carries over onto the field. I can use my strength and my long arms to get people off of me." 

Wisconsin used Newkirk at both defensive line positions and figures to do the same with Watt, who possesses decent speed to go along with his size. Schofield, who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, is a classic speed rusher, while Watt provides a bit more versatility.

"We're going to move me around a lot," Watt said. "For spread teams, I'm going to play defensive tackle, so we have a little quickness inside. And against the bigger, power running teams, I'll be outside at defensive end.

"It will be interesting to see how it works out."

Schofield likes what he's seen so far from the sophomore.

"Once he gets a better grasp of things, because he's playing inside and outside, he's going to be a really good player," Schofield said. "He's very intense. It's amazing to sit there and watch him." 

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