INDIANAPOLIS – As he opened Wisconsin’s 2016 season at Lambeau Field last September, T.J. Watt didn’t give any thought to the possibility of the iconic stadium someday being his NFL home as well.
His mental faculties were otherwise occupied.
“To be honest with you, that never crossed my mind because that was my first-ever start,” said Watt, a Wisconsin native as well as UW alum, on Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I was nervous as heck to play in that game.
“Lambeau Field is a special place, it has a special place in my heart, just because growing up I would go up there with some buddies and watch the games. It was just a crazy atmosphere. It was an atmosphere like I’ve never experienced before. The fans came out, and it was just an unbelievable day.”
Watt helped lead a superb defensive effort by the Badgers in their 16-14 upset of LSU, a game that kick-started a dominant season that turned out to be his last at Wisconsin.
Playing outside linebacker after converting from tight end early in his college career, Watt posted 11½ sacks in 2016, was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick, earned multiple All-America honors, and decided to enter the NFL Draft with one year of eligibility remaining.
That thought hadn’t crossed his mind either until late last season. But with two older brothers in the NFL – three-time league defensive player of the year J.J. with the Texans and second-year fullback Derek with the Chargers – to lean on for advice, plus plenty of confidence in his own abilities, Watt never really hesitated to go after his lifelong dream.
“He kind of gave me the blueprint of how to do it,” Watt said of his ultra-famous, superstar oldest brother. “I’m going to try to follow in his footsteps but blaze my own trail at the same time.”
Living in J.J.’s shadow, so to speak, was an adjustment at first, but Watt has come to embrace it.
“My brother is the best defensive player to ever play the game in my opinion,” he said. “Obviously I’m biased. But when you play the sport of football and you have your role model, the person you look up to, a phone call away or a text away, it’s special.”
Draft night promises to be special, too. In a deep class of pass-rushers, Watt is considered a late first-round or second-round prospect by many analysts and a potential fit for the Packers, who hold the 29th overall pick.
In this draft, Green Bay could be looking hard at adding edge-rushers to a group that includes veteran Clay Matthews and 2016 third-round pick Kyler Fackrell, but may no longer feature Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, Datone Jones or Jayrone Elliott, depending on what happens in free agency.
Watt’s one productive season as a starter is a double-edged sword. While he admitted to a “steep learning curve” in the conversion from the offensive side of the ball, he took the Big Ten by storm once he settled in.
Whether he’s viewed more as an unproven commodity or untapped potential could vary from team to team.
“There’s a mixture of both,” he said of what he’s hearing from NFL coaches. “The No. 1 thing I tell teams is I’m just scratching the surface. I’ve only played defense for 18 or 20 months, so if I can do all the things I did this past year, what can I do when I’m under the tutelage of an NFL coach?
“But obviously lack of film, lack of experience is a point that’s come across, but I feel like it’s not a problem at all with my work ethic, and with the bloodlines and all that.”
Watt’s late-rising draft stock and nonstop motor have drawn comparisons to Matthews, which he takes as a compliment without getting caught up in it.
No offense to the Packers’ six-time Pro Bowler, but if Watt is patterning his game off of anyone, it’s obvious who that is.
“The No. 1 thing I love about my brother’s play is the way he does it,” Watt said. “He is 100 percent, all-out every single play. You’re not going to catch him loafing. You’ll catch him in pursuit.
“He’s a game-changer. A real guy that every single play he can make a play, and that’s how I want to be viewed. Every single time on the field, I want to be making the play.”