UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Young linebackers develop under watchful eyes


Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema generally likes to stand directly behind the linebackers when the scout team defense is matched against the No. 1 offense during an inside drill.

From his vantage point, Bielema exhorts the linebackers to "Fill hard!'' or "Play with your hands!'' Usually those linebackers are Jake Keefer from Woodville and Derek Watt from Pewaukee.

Both are true freshmen who are being redshirted this season.

"He'll watch every single play, and he definitely hones in on the scout defense,'' Watt said of Bielema. "It's good to know that's he's watching and evaluating and we're not off on our own.

"It would be no different if he wasn't watching; we'd still play the same way. But it's comforting to know that he's taking the time and paying attention to what we're doing.''

Not much gets past Bielema, who's constantly encouraging and pushing his younger players to get better. That's especially true during the developmental practices each Sunday.

These sessions are designed for anybody on the depth chart who didn't play the day before -- and some who did play but got limited work. Starters are excluded.

Bielema likes to use the examples of tight end Jacob Pedersen and offensive lineman Ryan Groy as players who have developed the fastest and made the greatest strides during these practices.

"We may not be preparing you this week to win a game next week,'' Bielema will tell the players. "But we may be preparing you to win the third game next year.

"I want them to think that way.''

Bielema has already formulated some positive thoughts on Keefer and Watt.

"Anything you throw at him,'' he said of Keefer, "he goes a million miles an hour. Out there the other day, he was screaming and yelling because he wanted to get more reps."

"Derek Watt is going to be OK," Bielema added. "If he doesn't stay at linebacker, he might grow into big brother's (spot). He's got those size 14 canoes and he's a really, really hard worker just like J.J. Watt was.''

Former Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, a first-round NFL draft choice of the Houston Texans, stands 6-6 and weighs 292. His younger brother, Derek, is 6-2, 215.

Derek Watt has already had a growth spurt from the comprehension standpoint.

"When you come here, you get so much better the first few days,'' he said of the August training camp. "It's the things that you learn and the guys that you're going against that makes you better.

"Every day in practice I've been going up against the top offensive line in the country -- at least in our eyes -- and I've gotten better in my techniques, playing with my hands and getting off cut blocks.''

Besides playing linebacker, Watt rushed for 2,685 yards and 44 touchdowns as a prep tailback.

"Playing both ways in high school, you know what they (running backs) are thinking and you can kind of anticipate things,'' he said. "You can see what they're seeing when the hole opens up.''

Derek Watt communicates once a week with his older brother.

"J.J. knows what it's like being on the scout team and he just reminds me to stay motivated and keep working hard,'' Derek said.

"He tells me, 'Let your work do the talking. There are eyes on you at all times; cameras at all angles during practice, so you can't take any plays off. Do what you can do to help the team out.'''

He appreciates the advice because it hits so close to home. "I'm not getting on the field anytime this year,'' he said, "so I'm just trying to help the guys who are and hopefully get my time next year.''

Watt and Keefer are going through similar transitions as redshirts to college football.

"We spent so much time together all summer,'' Watt said, "and now that Derek is over in the two deep and actually getting playing time, it's just me and Jake working together on scout team.''

Derek is Derek Landisch, a true freshman linebacker from Hartland-Arrowhead High School. In addition to contributing on special teams, he has been getting more and more snaps on defense.

"He's not No. 44 (Chris Borland),'' Bielema said of Landisch. "But he's not far away.''

Bielema suggested moving Landisch to Mike linebacker. At the moment, he sees Jake Keefer in the middle, too, with Derek Watt on the outside. "It's just a good group,'' Bielema emphasized.

Bound only to get better while developing at their own pace.

If nothing else, they each know that Bielema will be watching.