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SC on the Road: T.J. Watt carrying on a family tradition at Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. -- Fourteen months ago, T.J. Watt reported to Wisconsin's fall camp without any real grasp of how to play the position he was assigned. He was a talented, athletic project who had been moved from tight end to outside linebacker, and the entry-level instruction he received seemed to barrel toward him at warp speed.

This is how you stand. This is how you load your weight on the proper foot. This is where your hands go. Here's how to maintain pad level and gain leverage on a lineman.

"We started at ground zero," Badgers outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar recalled. "At that time, even though he was in his third fall at Wisconsin, it was kind of like having a freshman come in. You're trying to teach him for the first time how to play outside 'backer in our system."

Those who witnessed Watt's performance last Saturday against Michigan State might find it difficult to believe he hasn't spent a lifetime mastering the skills required of an outside linebacker. During Wisconsin's 30-6 romp of Michigan State, Watt recorded a career-high 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He finished with six tackles, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. For his efforts, he was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week, becoming the first Badgers player to earn the honor since 2004. He also claimed Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Watt could again be a major factor when No. 8 Wisconsin visits No. 4 Michigan on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Through four games this season, he leads the Big Ten with 4.5 sacks and ranks tied for seventh nationally in that category.

Given where Watt started, that's pretty amazing, right?

"I think it'd be amazing if it was anyone but T.J.," Badgers linebacker Jack Cichy said. "You see it with his brothers. He comes from a football family, and he's a football player. At first, there was a learning curve, but he's blown that out of the water. He's matured drastically from the time he first came on the defensive side of the ball. And he's just really exponentially getting better every week."

The Watt name is one that carries significant weight in the football world, as many likely already know. T.J., a 6-foot-5, 244-pound redshirt junior, is the youngest of three brothers, and the other two excelled at Wisconsin before becoming NFL draft picks. Defensive end J.J. Watt was a first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans in 2011 and has earned three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. Fullback Derek Watt was a sixth-round draft choice of the San Diego Chargers this spring.

Of course, none of their successes guaranteed anything for T.J., who has had to earn his own keep. He did not play in each of his first two seasons at Wisconsin after suffering debilitating knee injuries. By the time Badgers coach Paul Chryst approached Watt during a team meeting about a position switch in July 2015, he hadn't been on a football field in three falls and was desperate to play.

Initially, Watt wasn't sure whether to take the defensive plunge. But J.J. partly inspired T.J.'s decision-making. He encouraged T.J. by telling him he possessed the skill set to be a linebacker. That night, T.J. pulled up YouTube videos of some of the NFL's best pass-rushers, including plays from his brother, Von Miller and Lawrence Taylor. The next day, he told Chryst he was ready.

"I just fell in love with the mentality," T.J. Watt said.

The biggest selling point, Watt noted, was the potential to make an impact on every defensive snap. As a tight end, he was forced to wait for a play call directed toward his side, and even then, there wasn't any assurance the ball would be thrown at him. At outside linebacker, Watt's stamina and natural instincts allow him to tackle ball carriers anywhere on the field.

"He's an unbelievable worker, and he's smart," Chryst said. "I think he loves the game.

"How do you put a timetable on that development? I appreciate it, and it's been fun to see him grow and develop. I still think he could be an unbelievably good tight end, too."

Last year, Wisconsin's coaching staff opted to give Watt a small early-season role as a third-down pass-rusher. By the end of the season, however, he had progressed so much that he was routinely in the game on first- and second-down plays. Coaches believed in him enough that they named Watt a starting outside linebacker to open spring ball, replacing Big Ten Linebacker of the Year Joe Schobert, who is now with the Cleveland Browns.

That decision allowed Wisconsin to move Cichy to inside linebacker and strengthen the entire group. Watt and senior Vince Biegel quickly formed a frightening pass-rushing duo on a unit that ranks 12th nationally in total defense. Biegel, however, underwent surgery Thursday night to have a screw inserted into a cracked foot, will miss the Michigan game and could be out two to four weeks, his father told ESPN.com. The injury likely will make Watt's presence even more valuable on Saturday.

"He's a big, physical guy and he's a hard-working guy," Biegel said earlier in the week of Watt. "Offseason, you guys don't see it, but in the weight room, in spring practices, in the grind season, he's right at the top. That's what you want. That's why you come to Wisconsin. You want to be able to work out and be teammates with guys like that."

Watt said one of his biggest challenges remained understanding how quickly decisions must be made while pass rushing. He is still learning many of the same concepts taught to him 14 months ago, including slowing his mind down and focusing on pad level and leverage. Occasionally, he will send his oldest brother videos of a pass rush and wait for critiques from J.J. on hand placement and footwork.

Sometimes, he's his own toughest critic. He watched film of his performance against Michigan State and noticed several plays he didn't make.

"It's definitely encouraging to know that there were a lot of plays left out there," Watt said. "But at the same time, it's also a little bit like, 'Dang it, I could've had a couple more tackles.' I think defensively as a whole, we're still improving, we're still scratching the surface and the sky's the limit."

The same can certainly be said of Watt.