Wisconsin LB T.J. Watt won't be intimidated replacing an All-American

MADISON, Wis. -- The mere idea of trying to step into a starting role previously occupied by an All-American would be enough to make many underclassmen quake in their cleats.

So it requires a certain type of football player to block out the external pressures of living up to expectations and replicating success. Someone comfortable enough in his own skin to let all of that outside noise fall on deaf ears. Someone like, say, Wisconsin redshirt sophomore T.J. Watt, who just happens to be the youngest brother of the greatest active defensive player in football -- once an All-American himself.

"I approach it just like being the younger brother of J.J. Watt," he said. "I come in here, I do my best every day. I do extra work on top of it. Hopefully it carries over to the field."

T.J. Watt has the moxie and talent to be a star at outside linebacker for Wisconsin. And this season, he'll be provided with ample opportunity to shine in a new role as the replacement for Joe Schobert. A year ago, Schobert became only the third linebacker in school history to earn first-team all-America honors. He led the Badgers in tackles for loss (19.5), sacks (9.5) quarterback hurries (14) and forced fumbles (five), which tied for second nationally.

Watt is quick to point out he is not Schobert. This is only Watt's second season playing linebacker after being flipped from tight end, where he suffered a string of injuries early in his Badgers career. But he has worked to put himself in position to start opposite Vince Biegel. And he certainly won't be intimidated by the task at hand.

"My whole life I've been trying to prove people wrong," Watt said. "I'm not here because of my older brothers. I earned this spot and I'm here. I think that's the biggest part for me is just to know the guys in the locker room know T.J. is working his butt off. He earned that spot and deserves to be on the field.

"All that outside noise, people can say what they want about me. But at the end of the day, it's the people that are in my inner circle that I care about."

T.J. is the third and final Watt brother to come through the Badgers' football program, following Derek, a fullback who finished his career in 2015, and J.J., who declared for the NFL draft a year early after the 2010 season. T.J. began to open eyes with his play during the middle of last season. He noticed in Week 6 against Nebraska that coaches entrusted him to play on first and second down rather than in a specific third-down package. His in-game snaps expanded from there, and he became an effective pass rusher down the stretch. He finished with eight tackles, four quarterback hurries and three pass breakups.

Where Watt excels is in his physicality at the point of attack. He carries a 6-foot-5, 243-pound frame. Meanwhile, Schobert was 6-2 and 236 pounds last season. Badgers outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar said Watt presents a tough matchup for fullbacks or tight ends because they will struggle to block him. He also is athletic enough not to be a liability in pass coverage.

"He's learning how to use leverage and get his feet in the proper place," Tibesar said. "Get his pads underneath those guys. For a guy who's 6-5, to see him get underneath a 6-foot fullback is great to see. That means he can bend at his hips and his knees and translate all that power into somebody else. He's going to be a more physical presence out there."

Schobert and Biegel formed arguably the top pass-rushing duo at outside linebacker in the country last season, combining for 33.5 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries. The pair started together for two years, and Biegel acknowledged it might take some time for he and Watt to develop the same chemistry, though he likes what he has seen through eight spring practices.

"Someone tweeted out, 'Will T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel be a dynamic duo?' And I just tweeted yes," Biegel said. "I believe that. I think T.J. is a guy who brings some definite skill sets as a pass rusher. He's a different player than Joe. But I think come game time, T.J. and I will develop and build that bond as outside linebackers. You'll see that dynamic duo at the outside come back."

Following Thursday's practice, T.J. walked off the field with his brother J.J., who was in town during his NFL offseason. T.J. said he rarely talked football with J.J. -- a three-time NFL defensive most valuable player with the Houston Texans -- although he occasionally sends his older brother video of pass rushing moves that J.J. will critique.

T.J. Watt still has plenty to learn at the position, particularly when it comes to improving pass coverage, said defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. But as his reps increase while surrounded by perhaps the best linebacker corps in the conference, his knowledge base and comfort level will continue to grow.

No, he is not trying to be the next J.J. Watt or the next Joe Schobert. With his skill set, Badgers coaches recognize he doesn't have to be.

"He's got to be the best player that he can possibly be," Tibesar said, "and that'll be good enough for us to be successful."