In a way, J.J. Watt is now everywhere and nowhere.
He’s made appearances in Gatorade commercials, juggled private workouts and preparations for Thursday’s NFL Draft and still managed to make his way back to Wisconsin, manning the sidelines in Saturday’s spring game and spending the second half signing autographs. Typically regarded as a first-round draft prospect, Watt is making the proverbial rounds, running the gamut of pre-draft activities top prospects are mercilessly subjected to.
Where he’s not, though, is with the Badgers. He didn’t spend the spring grinding his way through 15 practices, and he didn’t join in embarrassing UW’s quarterbacks in the spring game. Watt, of course, won’t be suiting up for the Badgers come Sept. 1, when the UNLV Rebels invade Camp Randall Stadium for the 2011 season opener. Wherever he’s drafted, Watt will be spending the fall chasing bigger, faster, more talented quarterbacks.
So, the Badgers will move on without one of the most talented players to come through the program in the last decade. If this spring is any indication – sometime it is, sometimes it isn’t – they plan to do so with a platoon of defensive ends. Louis Nzegwu, a fifth-year senior, started all 13 games last season and returns as Wisconsin’s most experienced defensive end (34 career games played). David Gilbert, a junior, has appeared in 25 career games. Brendan Kelly, another redshirt junior, has played in only 11 career games, but he figures to be a significant part of the rotation following an impressive spring.
Together, the trio has amassed a combined 99 tackles (12 for loss) and eight sacks in their careers. Last season – which was Kelly’s redshirt season – they combined for 67 tackles (nine for loss) and 4.5 sacks.
Watt, in the two seasons he took the field for UW, recorded 106 tackles (36.5 for loss) and 11.5 sacks. Last season, he had 62 tackles (21 for loss) and seven sacks.
There’s also the matter of leadership, which anyone with a Twitter account or a DBWH wristband will tell you Watt was extraordinary at. But strictly on the field, it’s painfully clear Watt has left a void much larger than his own 6-foot-6, 292-pound frame at defensive end.
So while the Badgers don’t necessarily face the question of replacing Watt – at least, not immediately – they’re certainly tasked with replicating that production. Fortunately for the defensive ends, and really, the entire defense, Watt’s presence has lingered.
“The best thing about J.J. is he’s real good friends with all of us,” Kelly said. “He’s giving us tips and stuff, so he’s helping us get better as well. He was a great player for us and he did a lot, he produced a lot for us. The best thing about that is taking that challenge upon yourself and saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to be that guy, I’m going to get better today and be that guy.'”
That tireless work ethic made Watt, a former Pewaukee pizza boy, a likely first-round draft prospect. Now, it could do the same to the current band of UW defensive ends.
Kelly himself could be a likely candidate to follow in the once-unheralded Watt’s steps. Maybe he won’t post the same numbers, but Kelly quickly became one of the most talked-about Badgers in spring camp. His hustle, tenacity and team-first mindset largely echoed Watt’s, and his emergence dissolved many of the questions surrounding the position group. Wisconsin’s depth at defensive end, a concern entering the spring, is now a strength.
“Right now, I see David Gilbert, Louis Nzegwu and I rotating as ones,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of been a competition that’s been going on, and it stems back from before, when I was hurt for a while. David and Louis had a big fight for a starting position [at] the other end of J.J. I saw that, kind of sat back, but at the same time, I was eager and chomping at the bit to get into that fight for that spot.”
Make no mistake: Kelly hasn’t remotely earned that spot yet. Neither has anyone on the defense, or the entire team. After suffering injuries each of his first two years at UW, Kelly was a logical redshirt option last season. He’s certainly not yet a household name on Wisconsin’s defense, as partially evidenced by the significantly smaller (compared to that of Nzegwu and Gilbert) crowd of reporters encircling him after Saturday’s game.
Regardless, Kelly and the rest of the defensive ends are aware of the task ahead of them. Watt was a superhero at Wisconsin, never failing to don his cape as the unanimous leader that was looked up to during both good and bad. So far, neither Kelly, Nzegwu nor Gilbert has flashed signs of echoing Watt’s personality or leadership. On the field, they still have a lot to prove.
But any sort of substitution for or recreation of Watt’s production will begin on the field, and that’s something his replacements are well aware of.
“We definitely have a different defense schematically with Chris Ash being a coordinator and Charlie Partridge,” Kelly said. “But I think when it comes down to it, football’s football. They’re just going to line you up and let you play.”