At this point in his life, T.J. Watt has learned enough to know that when the cameras are pointed at him and reporters wave their recorders in his face, there will be questions about his brother, J.J. Watt.
This is just an average media session when you share a last name with the most dominant defensive player the National Football League over the last three seasons or so.
It’s a good storyline. The brother of an NFL star and University of Wisconsin football product is on campus. The comparisons are natural, too. But instead of answering the questions he’s heard dozens of times like, “How often do you talk to your brother?” or “Does he give you tips?”, T.J. Watt would rather do his own talking on the field.
“Obviously it’s on my mind, but I don’t go out of my way thinking about creating my own legacy and I also don’t think about trying to go in their exact footsteps,” T.J. Watt said during training camp. “I just try to let my play go and do my talking.”
T.J. Watt’s answer is indicative of his diplomatic nature. He’s like his brothers that way. Their answers never insult anyone and usually employ a cliché along the lines of hard work and “taking it one day at a time.”
Like T.J. Watt said, he’d rather let his actions on the gridiron tell his story, because his story is his own. T.J. Watt’s journey truly began about 14 months ago in the Camp Randall Stadium bleachers during local media day. There was a swarm of media surrounding Derek Watt, about to enter his final year as a Badger. Nobody wanted to talk to T.J. Watt.
“I was just thinking about last year this time looking over at these chairs,” T.J. Watt said at the local media day Aug. 7 “Derek was the one getting the interviews … And I was sitting over there not getting a single interview because I just switched to defense and no one really knew about me.”
A month earlier, UW head coach Paul Chryst approached T.J. Watt in the back of a team meeting armed with the suggestion that he switch to defense. T.J. Watt laughed at first, but Chryst was serious. The youngest Watt talked to his family, including J.J. Watt, who was supportive and said he had the skill set to excel on the opposite side of the ball if that was what he wanted. The youngest Watt watched YouTube videos of prolific pass-rushers in the game: Von Miller and, you guessed it, J.J. Watt.
The next day, T.J. Watt was no longer a tight end for the Wisconsin Badgers, but an outside linebacker. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound T.J. Watt said he enjoys the defensive side of the ball because rather than waiting to get your number called on offense, a defensive player can make an impact on any given play.
“I love getting after the ball, getting after the passer, just making plays,” he said. “I like [that] as a defender, you don’t have to be blitzing to make a tackle or make a pass breakup.”
Though T.J. Watt appeared in all of UW’s 13 games, 2015 was a transitional year for him. He made eight tackles. But his fellow outside linebacker Vince Biegel saw promise in him right away.
“He’s got some good players in his family, I guess,” Biegel, a fifth-year senior, joked.
“He’s a hard worker,” Biegel said. “He comes into work every single day and pushes our whole outside linebacker group and that’s what it’s all about.”
Biegel added that having two guys on the edge who can rush the passer is a luxury. They rely on each other, and because both excel at getting after the quarterback, opposing offenses usually cannot afford to chip-block or double-team both of them at the same time, yielding one-on-one opportunities.
T.J. Watt has reaped the benefits of those chances in 2016. Through four games, he ranks second on the team in total tackles (29) and leads the team in sacks (5.5), tackles-for-loss (7.5) and quarterback hits (five).
To this day, Chryst believes T.J. Watt could have been a solid tight end, but said his dedication allowed him to find a home on defense.
“It’s not that he picked it up faster or slower than I thought,” Chryst said. “T.J.’s a really good football player. He’s an unbelievable worker and he’s smart. I think he loves the game and so how do you put a timetable on that development? I appreciate it. It’s been fun to see him grow and develop and last year have success then build off of that.”
The Watt brothers remain close primarily through a group chat, T.J. Watt said, talking nearly every day. Less than 10 percent of the time it’s about football, he said, but he won’t hesitate to send J.J. Watt a video of his pass rushes and have him critique.
After a dominant performance (six tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and a quarterback hit) during UW’s 30-6 win over Michigan State Sept. 24, a score of reporters surrounded T.J. Watt the moment he stepped into the visitors media room in the annals of Spartan Stadium. It was the polar opposite of Media Day 2015.
No one asked him about his brothers that day. He let his play do the talking.