Defense loads of fun for UW's Watt

2009-09-02T12:40:00Z Defense loads of fun for UW's WattBy TOM MULHERN tmulhern@madison.com 608-252-6169 madison.com

There are many ways to gauge sophomore defensive end J.J. Watt's enthusiasm for the University of Wisconsin football team's season opener against Northern Illinois Saturday.

Here's one: One of the traditions of UW camp is the popular Family Fun Day, which is held on the second Sunday. Suffice it to say, the anticipation level among players varies. While players are accommodating, it's a long, hot day of pictures and autographs in the sun, after two weeks of grinding practices.

Yet, Watt couldn't wait for the day. Any chance to put on his game jersey and go inside Camp Randall Stadium is a good day for him.

"Some of the guys dread the day in the sun," Watt said. "Family Fun Day is people coming and getting to stand on Camp Randall's turf. We get to play on it every day and it loses some of its specialness. You see those people and they remind you how special this place is.

"It's always one of my favorite times. To see a kid smile after he gets an autograph, that's a pretty special time."

It's hard to find another player on the UW roster more appreciative of his surroundings than Watt. Part of it has to do with being a state product, from Pewaukee, who was raised on the Badgers.

Still, Watt didn't attend his first game until his junior year of high school. He picked a good one, the 23-20 victory over Michigan in 2005, in which John Stocco scored the winning touchdown on a quarterback draw late in the fourth quarter.

Standing on the field after a recent practice, Watt pointed to the precise spot he was sitting when it happened. His voice rose with excitement as the memory returned.

"I was absolutely hooked," Watt said. "I've loved Badger football ever since. The atmosphere was insane that day. I've never been in a louder place. I was looking at the players, like, 'How sweet would it be to play out there?' Now, I'm playing out there, which is unreal to me."

It hasn't been easy getting here, which is another reason Watt is so thankful. He started every game at Central Michigan as a tight end in 2007 for the Mid-American Conference champions.

But he never lost his love for UW, so he gave up a starting job and a scholarship to transfer here. The Badgers only offered him a preferred walk-on spot out of high school, in part because a case of mononucleosis the summer before his senior year.

The Badgers put him at defensive end and he was so impressive on the scout team, while sitting out his transfer year in 2008, he was rewarded with a scholarship in the spring, before playing a single game.

The anticipation for Watt's debut has built as he earned a starting job and bulked up to 287 pounds on his athletic 6-foot-6 frame.

"People are starting to have their expectations set," Watt said. "I love that. Some people say, 'Are the expectations too high? I really embrace that. If people expect a lot out of you, it means they want to see something out of you. I want to give them what they expect out of me."

What the coaches expect is an impact player on the field, although it might not always show up in the statistics.

"I'll tell you where he might make the impact and it might not be seen by the fans up in the stands," defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "When he's on the tight-end side of the formation and he mashes that whole side and you see linebackers free, making plays in the backfield, hopefully, somebody in the stands says, 'Boy, J.J. did a great job,' even though maybe he didn't make 12 tackles (in the game). That value from J.J. is going to be extreme."

It can be a thankless role, but Watt knows the linebackers appreciate it.

"Job one for me is to disrupt," he said. "I want to absolutely demolish anyone in front of me, hopefully knock off a couple more blockers so other guys can make tackles."

He hopes it starts against the Huskies, who had to scramble at right tackle after senior Kevin Skatrud, a Brodhead-Juda product, suffered a season-ending knee injury in camp. Junior Panan Tense, who moved from right guard, or sophomore Adam Kiel will start.

Watt hasn't played in a game since Central Michigan's 51-48 loss to Purdue in the 2007 Motor City Bowl on a field goal with no time left. Needless to say, he has some pent-up emotions waiting to be released.

"It has been two years since I've hit another colored jersey, which is something sad for me," he said. "I haven't sacked a quarterback since high school, which is too long ago to remember.

"I've had to live with that (last game) for a long time. I'm going to bring a lot of anger and emotion into the game. That offensive tackle is definitely going to feel my presence, I believe."

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