University of Wisconsin junior defensive ends J.J. Watt and Louis Nzegwu don't spend all of their waking time together. It only seems that way.
"There are some days we don't see each other," Nzegwu said.
When at last they are reunited, the conversation often goes like this:
Watt: "Louis where have you been all day?"
Nzegwu: "I've been at class."
Watt: "‘Yeah, I've missed you."
Watt and Nzegwu not only play the same position, they have lived together the past three years. They are roommates on the road and on Friday nights before home games. Naturally, they spend a lot of time talking about football.
"We're up watching film together a lot," Watt said. "We're talking football at home. All the time, it's football, football with us."
They spent extra time working out together and watching film over the summer, preparing for this season. And after Nzegwu had a breakout performance last week in the 20-19 victory over Arizona State — with a team-high seven tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss — the two went back to their apartment and watched the Arizona-Iowa game together.
They especially like watching games when other top college defensive linemen like Iowa's Adrian Clayborn or Ohio State's Cameron Heyward are playing.
"It's a lot of fun to be able to talk with somebody who's actually knowledgeable," Watt said. "You watch the game with your dad or your brother, you can talk a little bit. But when I watch with Louis, I can talk about containing and all that stuff."
All of the time Nzegwu is spending with Watt appears to be paying dividends as the 11th-ranked Badgers face Austin Peay on Saturday before starting Big Ten Conference play next week.
"J.J.'s approach to the game has made a huge impact on Louis' approach to the game," defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "It has certainly helped (Nzegwu) develop since he's been put in this (starting) role."
No shortage of inspiration
It's hard to imagine two better mentors for Nzegwu, a high school running back at Platteville, than Watt and O'Brien Schofield, who led the defensive line as a senior last season. Schofield was on the sideline when Nzegwu made his first career start at UNLV in the opener.
"He was giving me tips and pointers," Nzegwu said. "It really helped. I wish he could be there each and every game."
The friendship between Watt and Nzegwu predates their time together at UW. Both were among the top players in the state in high school, with Watt attending Pewaukee. They started communicating on the Internet and met face-to-face for the first time as seniors at a track meet. They also got a chance to bond at a high school awards dinner.
During the recruiting process, they kept in touch, with Watt appearing headed to Minnesota, then signing with Central Michigan, where he played tight end. A year later, Watt contacted Nzegwu and told him he was transferring to UW.
"I was really excited," Nzegwu said. "At the same time, I said, ‘Hey, what position are you going to play? Don't be taking my spot. I know you're a beast.' It worked out for the better."
Watt asked Nzegwu if he knew anyone on the team who needed a roommate and Nzegwu said, "Yeah, me."
Some of the ways Watt has helped Nzegwu the most are with motivation and daily preparation. Watt used to have a whiteboard on which he wrote quotes every day to motivate himself. Since then, Watt has turned to daily Twitter messages to share his thoughts with more people, including his favorite saying, "Dream big, work hard."
Nzegwu now has a whiteboard of his own in his room. Scrawled across the bottom is the phrase, "You never get the day back," which was written by Watt. "That's the one that stays at the bottom," Nzegwu said. "He wrote it there for me. I never erased it."
A more consistent approach
While Nzegwu always had the physical ability, he was raw, playing a new position after an all-state career as a running back. He played mostly on third down last season and backed up Schofield, finishing with 3.5 sacks. Coaches noticed a difference in Nzegwu's approach in the spring, when he started spending more time watching film.
Watt talked to Nzegwu frequently about the jump to every-down starter "and how you have to attack every single play."
"Once you get in the Big Ten season, once you start playing every single down, it's easy to be complacent," Watt said. "It's easy to try and take a play off and save yourself for later. That's the biggest thing we can't have."
Despite the pressure he feels replacing Schofield, Nzegwu has responded. He ranks fourth on the team — and first among defensive linemen — in tackles with 14, three more than Watt. Nzegwu is tied for the team lead with two sacks.
The most encouraging thing about the last game for the coaches is Nzegwu didn't try to do anything extraordinary. He just made the plays that came his way.
"The thing that excites me as much as anything is a lot of that production came from him doing his job, just being fundamentally sound," Partridge said. "His eyes where they should be and it leads to production."
Nzegwu's preparation has been so good, he is as mentally strong as anyone else in the defensive line.
"He's on top of it (mentally)," Partridge said. "He's as good in the room, assignment-wise, as anyone we've got."
Double threat at end
Watt is also playing at a high level, which led to frequent double teams after the first quarter in the second game against San Jose State. Arizona State made the decision last week to run away from Watt, which is why Nzegwu had a chance to make so many plays.
One of the things the two roommates talk about frequently is how much they can help each other. The better Nzegwu gets, the more effective Watt can be.
"Hopefully, he kind of does what I did for O.B. last year, (which) was take double teams away from him," Watt said. "Once you have two defensive ends, they can't game plan against one. It makes everybody better."
Perhaps the best news is Watt and Nzegwu have another year together, to learn and grow and become an even better combination. Watt has already noticed a difference in Nzegwu since the last game.
"He's got a little pep in his step now," Watt said. "He made those big plays, he's definitely got the confidence riding (high) now. You can see, he's a little bit more sudden in practice, a little bit quicker. I can't wait to see him play this weekend."
And go home and talk about it afterward.