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Badgers' Watt driven by dreams, hard work

12/30/2010
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Watt Ready For Frogs

Wisconsin All-American defensive lineman J.J. Watt talks about his time at the Rose Bowl an preparing for TCU.

LOS ANGELES -- When the time came for J.J. Watt to provide a senior quote for his high school yearbook, he started to search for the perfect words.

Watt studied several possibilities, including famous quotes from legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. But the most meaningful words had to come from within.

"I came up with dream big, work hard," Watt said.

Anyone who has followed Watt's career at Wisconsin knows the phrase well. The Badgers' All-American junior defensive end ends many posts on his popular Twitter page with those four words or the acronym DBWH.

The motto carries Watt through everything he does.

"It really exemplifies what I am as a person," he said. "I want to get the message out that if you dream big, you can do anything you want in the world. But that's only half of it. If you're not willing to work hard, put in the time and the effort that it takes, you're just going to be dreaming."

Watt is living the dream this week in California as he and his Wisconsin teammates prepare to face TCU in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Watt blossomed for the Badgers this season, earning consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors and appearing on several All-America squads. He ranks third nationally in tackles for loss with 21 and is arguably the Big Ten's most versatile defender, recording every defensive statistic except safety this fall, and blocking three kicks on special teams.

College football fans know J.J. Watt, the finished product. He's a 6-6, 292-pound force projected to be an early-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft if he chooses to forgo his senior season.

It's hard to believe the same guy was a tight end in the MAC in 2007.

"I've never heard of it before," Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. "His journey, it's unreal. To think that he was 6-4, 210 in high school and nobody recruited him, and now he's 6-6, 290, and everyone is telling him he should leave college early.

"What he's done is tremendous."

Badgers linebacker Blake Sorensen remembers the first time he saw Watt.

Both attended a football camp at the University of Minnesota as high school players. Sorensen was "Mr. Football" in Minnesota; a two-time all-state selection who led his team to back-to-back state championships.

And Watt?

"He's was this lanky, awkward-looking, random kid," Sorensen said.

Doeren, who served as Wisconsin's recruiting coordinator at the time, remembers discussing Watt. But Wisconsin didn't offer a scholarship.

Watt initially committed to Central Michigan, switched to Minnesota when Brian Kelly left CMU and then switched back to the Chippewas after Minnesota fired Glen Mason.

Although Watt appeared in every game for Central Michigan in 2007, he didn't feel right there. He returned home for six months, delivered pizzas and took classes at a local community college before transferring to Wisconsin and walking onto the team.

"Obviously, we didn't look very good when he transferred back and became our best player," Doeren said. "But it all worked out in the end."

The coaches didn't have high expectations for their new walk-on transfer, and Watt had to ask head coach Bret Bielema if he could try out at defensive end.

"I don't know if they really thought I was going to be much of a football player when I came here," he said. "I tried to make the most of it."

He began by transforming his body.

"It took a lot of hard work in the weight room, a lot of hard work in the kitchen, eating," Watt said. "It was tough to put on as much weight as I put on."

Watt left high school at 228 pounds. When he started his first game at Wisconsin in 2009, he weighed 286 pounds.

"It'd be like telling you," Sorensen said, looking at me, "that you'll look like Arnold Schwarzenegger."

In addition to super-sizing himself, Watt also faced the mental challenge of mastering a new position at the college level. After earning Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors in 2008, Watt started all 13 games last season and finished second on team in tackles for loss (15.5), pass breakups (5) and fumble recoveries (2) and third in sacks (4.5).

He ended the season strong, recording five tackles for loss, three sacks and two quarterback hurries in the final two games.

"If you look up a quote from last season, someone asked me who is going to be the unnamed guy who is going to be a good player, and I said J.J.," Badgers star left tackle Gabe Carimi said. "He's the one that I said. So it's not surprising. He's big, strong, powerful.

"There was no question that he was going to be a good player here."

Watt took his game to another level this fall, especially in Big Ten play. He recorded multiple tackles for loss in six of eight conference games and made more game-changing plays than any defender in the league.

Despite his size and ability to play both line positions -- there was some talk Watt would play defensive tackle this season-- he grew his pass-rushing repertoire.

"I've seen more finesse out of him than anything," said TCU tackle Marcus Cannon, who will oppose Watt in the Rose Bowl. "He has some really nice moves. I think power would be probably second to his speed."

The combination could prompt Watt to enter the NFL draft in April. He boasts an impressive college résumé, both on and off the field.

Watt this year established the Justin J. Watt Foundation, which raises money for local elementary and middle schools that lack funding for athletics. Like several of his teammates, he's a regular visitor at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison.

Few were surprised when Watt won the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which recognizes both on-field performance and personal character.

It has been a long and unusual journey to Pasadena, but Watt wouldn't change a thing.

"I wouldn't have the work ethic I have," he said. "I wouldn't have the outlook on life that I have right now if it wasn't for everything that I had to go through to get here. So being in the Rose Bowl right now means that much more to me. ...

"I've seen everything," Watt continued. "I've seen the bottom, I've seen being out of college football, and now I'm seeing the top of college football. I was talking to my high school coach the other day. He told me, 'You've reached the Mecca of college football.' That's essentially what it is. The Rose Bowl is the biggest thing you can really do in the Big Ten.

"I'm just taking it all in and having a blast."