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NCAA Football

Why J.J. Watt will succeed in the NFL

(This column was supposed to be posted Friday, but server issues blocked me from doing so)

On the eve of tomorrow’s huge showdown at the Kohl Center, it seems appropriate to take a look at the last time a Wisconsin sports team knocked off a top-ranked Ohio State team and more specifically, one of the players who helped make it happen.

In what was arguably the best defensive performance of the year for the Badgers, there was no argument about who their best defensive player was in the game. J.J. Watt was in the backfield nearly every play, pressuring Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor and wreaking havoc on Ohio State’s offensive line.

Watt finished the game with three tackles for loss, two sacks and at least a half dozen pressures. On his first sack, he blew past not one, but two block attempts and got to Pryor before he even had a chance to finish his drop back. After the play, Watt stood up and raised his arms as if to say to the Ohio State coaching staff, “That’s really all you’re going to do to try to stop me?”

He got better and better as the game went on, and after watching some clips from the game, it seems evident to me that a lesser quarterback probably would have been sacked at least twice more by Watt. As well as the whole defense played that night, it’s tough to imagine it achieving the same level of success without him.

Even though it wasn’t his best game, Watt’s value was also demonstrated in the Rose Bowl, when TCU’s entire offensive game plan was to minimize his impact. The Horned Frogs left Watt unblocked and ran away from him or put him in two-on-one option situations where he had to make a choice about how to defend the play. It worked just well enough to win for TCU.

Watt finished the season with 62 tackles (second on the team), 21 tackles for loss (first), 10 quarterback hits (first), nine passes defensed (second), seven sacks (first), three forced fumbles (first), three blocked kicks (first) and an interception.

Flash forward to today. The football season is long gone and Watt decided weeks ago to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft. Initially, many “experts” had him going somewhere in the late first to early second round, but his stock rose steadily since then.

You might be thinking, “Watt hasn’t worked out for the media or scouts, so why the jump?” In the absence of workouts, scouts and reporters have a few options. Among other things, they go back and watch tape or try to get information from sources close to the player. Watching Watt play in the Ohio State game again certainly gave me a refreshed sense of how dominant he could be, but there’s a lot more to him that.

Watt has the kind of work ethic and attitude you rarely see in young athletes, and his often-told success story is just as remarkable. When he was a senior in high school, Watt was an undersized tight end prospect. Then just 6-feet-4 and 228 pounds, he didn’t receive a lot of attention from Big Ten schools and chose to go to Central Michigan. After spending a disappointing year there, he famously delivered pizzas for extra cash before asking Bret Bielema if he could walk-on with the Badgers.

In the next year and a half, Watt lifted weights and trained like a madman, putting on 50 to 60 pounds while still retaining the quickness that helps makes him so special today. After a promising sophomore year, he became a star in 2010 and the rest is history. In less than two years, J.J. Watt went from a skinny walk-on tight end to a dominant behemoth of a defensive end.

But that’s not even half the story. Anyone who follows Watt on Twitter or listens to him talk to the media knows not only how seriously he takes training, but what a high-character individual he is. The “Dream Big, Work Hard” motto Watt lives by is ten times more believable than anything you’d hear from a motivational speaker, even if it’s only because it’s coming from Watt. In the age of players like Randy Moss and JaMarcus Russell, someone with an attitude as positive as Watt’s is a breath of fresh air for football fans.

Recently, fans took to the internet to congratulate him for being taken so high in so many mock drafts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Watt thanked them but then noted, “The only [draft] that matters is the one in New York. [I’m] working towards it every day.”

Thanks to “DBWH” and his general positive attitude, scouts are also starting to take notice of Watt’s tremendously high character, and that’s part of the reason why we’re seeing his draft stock inflate. ESPN recruiting analyst Bruce Feldman was recently asked which college or pro football has best used social media to improve their image, and he said Watt was at the top of the list.

Many experts have Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley at or near the top of their recruiting boards. Fairley is without a doubt talented, explosive and ready for the pro game, but he also has character issues and is known to be a dirty player. Fairley may very well possess superior physical skills, but wouldn’t you feel safer if your favorite NFL team took someone like J.J Watt – someone who you know would work as hard and as by-the-books as they could to maximize their talents?

Watt is going as high as No. 9 in mock drafts, and barring an injury or setback, you can expect his stock to continue rising. He has the size, speed and intelligence needed to become an effective 3-4 end (Green Bay Packers, anyone?). But more importantly, there is no doubt that J.J. Watt will continue to dream big and work hard until he’s the best he can be, and then some.