Aug. 27, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- At the end of the Wisconsin's 2012 training camp, Derek Watt was a converted linebacker playing fullback; an undersized one at that. The heat of August and the grind of two-a-days had taken a physical toll on Watt, who weighed about 212 pounds. He was actually listed at 225 on the roster.
"By the end of year,'' he said, "I was back up to 220.''
Watt was light by Badgers standards for a fullback. As a senior, Matt Bernstein was 266, Chris Pressley was 259 and Bradie Ewing was 245. Although Watt was a running back at Pewaukee High School -- rushing for 2,685 career yards and 44 touchdowns -- he was now cast in a different role.
"We ran the Wing-T, so we really didn't have a fullback mentality at all,'' said Watt, a second-team USA Today All-American at linebacker and the Associated Press Wisconsin Player of the Year as a senior. "I was blocking on the perimeter -- if I was blocking at all -- so it was a little different.''
Going into the season opener against Northern Iowa, there was still some uncertainty for Watt, and about Watt. Could he make the move from linebacker -- where he had redshirted as a freshman and toiled on the scout team -- to fullback? Former UW coach Bret Bielema never had a doubt.
While not directly comparing Watt to former Iowa tight end Dallas Clark, also a converted linebacker, he was reminded of that transition. "It's just unbelievable,'' said Bielema. "In my coaching career, I've probably never seen a kid take to another position as quickly and as easily as that kid has.''
Despite the telling endorsement, Watt had some anxious moments.
"Last year, my head was spinning; I was trying to get the big picture and I was worried about everything,'' he said. "It was still early for me in the transition and I wasn't sure how much I was going to play in the first game. I knew that I was going to be used in certain situations.''
Sherard Cadogan, a redshirt sophomore, was designated as the starting fullback, but Watt made a good first impression by catching a couple of passes out of the backfield in Wisconsin's 26-21 win over Northern Iowa. He also played on special teams -- always a Watt passion -- and had one tackle.
"Since I had played offense in high school, it started to come back to me and click pretty early-on,'' said Watt, who summarily took over as the UW fullback (Cadogan would eventually move to linebacker.) "From that point, I thought, `All right, I feel comfortable and I'm ready to go.'''
As the season progressed, the Badgers were able exploit matchups with linebackers and safeties as Watt became more of a threat on wheel routes. At Pewaukee, he didn't have the ball thrown to him a lot but he usually caught it. For his prep career, he had 625 receiving yards and four scores.
"There were times last year when we would line up in a certain formation,'' Watt said, "and they thought they knew (what was coming on defense) and sometimes they were right. In the Illinois game, I was in my stance and they were yelling out, "34 is running the wheel, 34 is running the wheel.'''
Watt, No. 34, reacted like you would expect a Watt to react. In his mind, he was thinking, "All right, we'll see if they'll cover it.''' Blowing past Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan, he caught Joel Stave's pass for a 26-yard gain. Terry Hawthorne tried to break up the play and knocked himself out. Adding insult to injury, Hawthorne was penalized 15 yards for a high hit.
Always a heady player, Watt's proudest moment came in the final game of the regular season at Penn State when he threw the pivotal block, erasing two defenders, on Montee Ball's record-breaking touchdown run.
All things considered, Watt threw his weight around pretty effectively for someone who had trouble keeping weight on, and weighed no more than 220 most of the season. After last Saturday's practice at Camp Randall Stadium, Watt reported that he was carrying between 227 and 230 pounds.
"You feel a lot better just going into the blocks knowing you have a little bit more weight and power behind you,'' he said, adding that he's coming into this season with a fullback's mentality from the perspective of "driving my feet, finishing blocks and letting the backs do their thing.''
While the Badgers were experimenting with tailback Jeff Lewis at safety -- it didn't pan out and he has since returned to offense -- Watt was taking some reps as a potential third-down back. "I'm ready for whatever they throw at me,'' Watt said.
That includes special teams. Last season, Watt was on every unit. At the risk of wearing down, he will be limited, for now, to kickoff and kickoff return for the opener against UMass. "If I could be on all four, I would be,'' he said. "I love being on special teams, I love being a part of those plays.''
He also loves being around his younger brother, T.J. Watt, a freshman tight end.
"It's awesome just having him around to talk to,'' Derek Watt said. "I feel like it's more beneficial for him because he's coming into a situation where I can give him some advice and help him out along the way with any questions that he may have.
"I redshirted as a freshman, so he can look to me and ask how I went about it. I'll tell him, `Just keep your mind focused on your job on the scout offense so that you can help the defensive starters get ready for the game.' He has been doing some good things catching the ball and he'll only grow bigger.''
T.J. Watt is 6-foot-5, 235. His big brother, his really big brother today, J.J. Watt, was 6-5, 240 as a Central Michigan freshman. On the eve of the UW's training camp, J.J. called Derek and T.J. "He knows I've been through it,'' Derek said of the advice that was shared, "so he gave a little more to T.J.''
Lately, the brothers have had a lot to talk about, particularly with the official announcement that the Badgers will open the 2014 season against LSU on J.J. Watt's home turf, Houston's Reliant Stadium. "He's ready for it and planning on having a big tailgate,'' Derek said.
But first things first; there's business at hand, the 2013 season for the Texans and Badgers. Relaying that message and/or Watt mantra, Derek Watt said, "Work hard and do your thing.''
And, of course, dream big.