When Wisconsin fullback Derek Watt logged onto Facebook during the Packers game Sunday night, high school friends lit up his feed with comments about how difficult it was to believe that was indeed their former high school classmate eyeing Aaron Rodgers from the right edge of the defensive line.
There was J.J. Watt, now the star defensive end for the Houston Texans and a two-year starter on Wisconsin’s defensive line, pulling down Rodgers in his navy blue No. 99 home jersey and celebrating with his own rendition of the Green Bay quarterback’s trademark “championship belt” move.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he is where he is, because I know what he’s gone through, and how he’s worked, and stuff like that,” the younger Watt said. “But at times it is just pretty cool to just sit back and watch and say, ‘That’s my brother doing that kind of stuff in the NFL.’”
And as much as he loves watching his brother – who currently leads the league with 9.5 sacks – rattle opposing quarterbacks, Derek is more than content as the Badgers’ starting fullback.
That in itself is a feat of its own, considering Watt still planned on playing linebacker before a meeting with head coach Bret Bielema midway through fall camp. Though the redshirt freshman split time at running back at Pewaukee High School, he had never lined up at fullback.
But after realizing it was the quickest way to earn time on the field, he switched sides and within months had grabbed the starting role from redshirt sophomore Sherard Cadogan. While Watt would catch two passes for 35 yards in his starting debut, Bielema said he had his “most complete game” in the 38-14 victory over Purdue.
“I think the way he’s adapted, he’s a guy that’s gotten better every week,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “Playing linebacker through camp, (he) was making blocks, making catches. He’s done a very, very good job for us.”
In a run-based offense that values fullbacks as much for their receptions as their field-opening blocks, Watt was sure to point out the offensive line did not act alone in clearing the way for Wisconsin’s 467 rushing yards against the Boilermakers.
But he plays a position that may be shared only by offensive linemen in the lack of recognition for their achievements. In two years as the Badgers’ starting fullback and four years on the field, Bradie Ewing carried the ball all of seven times for a grand total of 33 yards.
Ewing took exactly zero carries as a senior in 2011. So despite UW’s affinity for running the ball, Watt isn’t exactly holding his breath for his first handoff.
“You’ll be recognized through [the running back's] successes,” he said. “We take personal pride in how our running backs do and as long as we do our thing, just cover up your guy and they can do some special things. … So we take our own credit in-house.”
As much as he tries to avoid it, Derek Watt’s play will forever live in the extensive shadow cast by the legacy his brother left in two years as a Badger – a run that included second-team All-American honors in his final season. It’s not as if he didn’t understand the comparisons would come when he decided to don a cardinal and white jersey just as his brother departed for the NFL.
One look at Wisconsin’s fullback leaves little doubt he’s related to the No. 11 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. The buzz cut and the distinctive facial features are there to help spark the recognition that Derek is indeed a Watt. But 3 inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter than his brother, he is best described as a less physically overwhelming version of J.J.
“I’ve been kind of based off of him by a lot of people; people kind of look at us as the same,” Watt said. “But we play totally different positions. I don’t mind being compared to him in terms of how we work and our successes, but I’m definitely trying to build my own path.”
Though slightly undersized for the position, the redshirt freshman has impressed his counterparts on the offensive side of the ball with an understanding of the game uncharacteristic of a player his age. After making the switch to fullback, he sought out the help of Wisconsin’s running back tandem of Montee Ball and James White before the season began.
Feeding off the experience of others has clearly paid off, as offensive linemen have noticed his ability to make difficult in-game reads at the line of scrimmage.
“He’s not focused on, ‘OK, my guy’s the same on this play; I’m going to go block the same,’” center Travis Frederick said. “If the [cornerback] comes, he can make that adjustment; that’s something that we really appreciate.”
Taking on a greater offensive role a la Ewing, who had 20 receptions in 2011, will come with increased game exposure at a still relatively unfamiliar position. Matching up with Ewing – a fifth round pick of the Atlanta Falcons who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason – as a member of the scout team nearly every week last year, the mentor and his prot?g? grew close.
The newly professional Ewing continues to coach from afar, offering Watt pointers through text following games. As Watt continues to establish an individual identity in Madison, it’s but another legacy to overcome.
“If you can play fullback the way that someone before you had and put a little twist on it yourself, that’s the best you can do,” Watt said.
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