University of Wisconsin redshirt junior T.J. Watt, a tight end at the time, chuckled when coach Paul Chryst asked if he had ever thought about playing defense. The two were sitting in the back of the room during a July team meeting in 2015 when Chryst brought up the subject, and the coach wanted to plant the idea in Watt’s head that he could play outside linebacker.
Watt spoke with family members that night, including brother J.J. Watt, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year as a defensive end for the Houston Texans. He spent he rest of the night perusing YouTube for highlights of his older brother along with outside linebackers like Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor and Von Miller of the Denver Broncos.
It didn’t take much to get him excited about a switch.
“I just fell in love with the mentality,” Watt said. "Getting after the ball, making plays. I came back the next day and told Coach Chryst, ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s been a heck of a year since then."
Just 14 months later, Watt has developed into one of the Badgers’ best defensive players.
He leads the Big Ten and ties for seventh nationally with 4.5 sacks through the season’s first four weeks and impressed just as much against the run, if not more so.
Watt’s performance in UW’s 30-6 win at Michigan State on Saturday — six tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss — earned him Big Ten Player of the Week honors and led to the Badgers’ first Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week Award since 2004.
“It’s not that he’s 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. How do you put a timetable on that development? It’s been fun to see him grow and develop and last year have success and then build off of that."
Watt was played sparingly at the beginning of last season while still new to the position and was used mostly as a defensive lineman in nickel packages.
Later in the season, he began playing a larger role at outside linebacker and was named the starter opposite Vince Biegel before spring practice even began in March.
Watt said rushing the passer was initially more difficult for him during games than in practice, and he’ll occasionally send pass rushing videos to J.J. Watt for feedback on hand placement, footwork and other technique issues.
Biegel also feels he and former UW outside linebacker Joe Schobert, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, helped T.J. Watt develop into an impact player quickly.
“It’s nice to have another complimentary piece on the other side,” Biegel said. “As a pass rusher, you get in slide protection, you get double teams a lot, but when you’re able to have a balancing act with another great pass rusher on the other side, it takes some pressure off myself.
"Our defense, myself, we’re going to continue to need T.J. to do great things for our defense to go in the right direction."
Watt has made the loss of Schobert appear negligible through four games, and UW’s front seven played some of its best football last week at Michigan State.
The Badgers rank 10th nationally against the run after holding the Spartans to 75 yards on 27 carries. Their pass rush has resulted in 11 sacks this year and caused multiple turnovers. Watt’s a major reason, and he said even now he continues to learn his new position.
“We broke down the film yesterday of the game on Saturday, and there were a lot of plays left on the table,” Watt said. “I think it’s ongoing. I’ll always be learning and my confidence will always be growing."