- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Not much has changed about Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt's game since Chicago Bears right tackle Gabe Carimi squared off against him in practice when the two were college teammates at Wisconsin from 2008-10.
"He's a relentless guy," Carimi said. "He's a hard worker. That's who he is."
Watt has exploded in his second season in Houston after the Texans selected him No. 11 overall in the 2011 NFL raft, ahead of Carimi who went to the Bears in the first round with the 29th overall pick. Houston's 6-foot-5 pass rush specialist leads the league with 10.5 sacks and is tops on the Texans' defense in tackles (59), tackles for a loss (18), quarterback hits (21), pass break ups (10) and forced fumbles (2).
"First off, he's a very smart player, so we're able to move him around, do some different things with him, inside, outside, nickel, base, so that's been a big plus," Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He started playing at a really high level last year in the playoffs and it's just continued. He's one of those guys that finds a way to gets his hands on the ball whether it's tipping a ball or getting a fumble and makes a lot of plays that are the difference in winning and losing.
"He's a very young player, but boy he's been a hell of a player for us and hopefully he can keep going here. He's doing a great job."
Carimi remembers Watt lining up at defensive end in a traditional 4-3 defense in college where the two had what can best be described as a contentious relationship on the practice field. However, Watt's role has been altered in Houston where he presents a variety of matchup problems along the entire offensive line.
"He plays a different position than he did at Wisconsin," Carimi said. "They're in a 3-4, so he plays a lot of inside stuff. That is where he does a lot of his good plays is on the inside. He does line up at defensive end sometimes, the five-technique, but a lot of times he'll be lined up against (right guard) Lance Louis."
Watt remembers those college days against Carimi.
"That was two competitors going at it," Watt said. "He's on offense. I'm on defense. Two great football players, two guys competing every single day. We went head-to-head, and we battled. And he was definitely a battle."
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice says Watt poses a challenge because he lines up in different places.
"He's going to take turns going up and down the line trying to make plays on us," Tice said. "We have to be up to the challenge. Hopefully we put in the right protection schemes that are going to take into account that. But at the same time we don't always know, even in (their) 3-4 base, where he is going to line up all the time."
If all things were equal, the Bears would probably prefer if Watt spent the bulk of his time working inside against Louis, who is arguably the club's best offensive linemen. When Watt lines up over Carimi on the outside, the Bears would likely be inclined to use an extra blocker to help their young right tackle, who by his own admission, is still working toward finding a certain degree of consistency in first full NFL season. Carimi had his rookie year cut short in Week 2 due to a knee injury that required several procedures to repair.
Carimi's play has been a little uneven at times this season, and he admitted on Wednesday that he did not have a particularly good game last week against the Tennessee Titans.
"A couple of weeks ago I thought I was playing pretty good ball," Carimi said. "Last game was kind of edgy. Halfway through the season, we are moving in the right direction. You always feel like you want to be going up in that direction. Some weeks you're just a little off on your game. (I'll) come back from it, no big deal."
Tice said Carimi is still learning to adjust on the fly when opponents attack him in unexpected ways.
"Gabe works hard," Tice said. "I think Gabe didn't have one of his better games (against the Titans) and Gabe will be the first one to tell you that. He had a plan. He's a very astute player for a young guy and has a plan each week. He had a plan for a certain approach they were going to take on him.
"They took a different approach, and he probably wishes he would have altered his plan during the course of the game and changed up his sets and things like that. But that's a young player working through some things and learning."
ESPN Chicago's Michael C. Wright contributed to this report.