GREEN BAY - If aspiring professional football players were drafted in accordance to their most frequent landing spots in mock drafts, former Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt surely would wind up with the Green Bay Packers.
Watt, who starred for the Badgers and decided to leave school early, has been linked to the Packers for reasons both practical and desirous. As a fearsome edge rusher, Watt aligns with an area of need following the free-agent departures of outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones. As a Wisconsin native and former Badger, he tugs at the heartstrings of residents who support the state’s two most popular teams.
With only a few days remaining before the draft, Watt continues to straddle the fence dividing the first and second rounds. The Packers own the 29th overall pick.
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Watt spoke to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week about the experience of the last few months. The following interview has been edited and condensed:
Q: What have you been up to since your media session at the NFL scouting combine? What has the last month and a half been like?
A: It’s been pretty busy with doing a lot of individual workouts with teams, on top of three visits over the past month and a half. It’s been chaotic, but at the same time it’s nice to be home and relax around family around as well.
Q: Is your home base during this process here in Wisconsin?
A: Yeah, yeah. I’m training back home at NX Level with Brad Arnett, my trainer since high school.
Q: When a lot of guys come out for the draft they will go to places like Florida, California or Arizona. What made you feel comfortable staying in Wisconsin for training?
A: For the combine I trained in Phoenix at EXOS. But then after the combine I came back home, which is what a lot of guys do. They’ll go home or they’ll go wherever they trained (during college). I really wanted to come home and get back to football training. I wasn’t doing combine-specific training anymore. Just trying to get in the best shape possible for minicamp coming up.
Q: When you train at home, do your brothers J.J. and Derek still train with you? (J.J. Watt, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is a defensive end for the Houston Texans. Derek Watt is a fullback for the Los Angeles Chargers.)
A: We all train together. Whenever they’re in town, we train altogether. For the past two months I’ve been living with J.J., and Derek was in town for a month too, so we were all living together and working out together.
Q: I know you’ve probably worked out with those guys thousands of times in your life, but as you get ready for the NFL, what was that experience like working next to them?
A: It was cool. It was awesome to just get back to working out with both of them because to compete with two guys who are in the NFL and who are my brothers is always awesome. And to know I can stick around and compete with those guys also gives me confidence.
Q: How much were you around the NFL through J.J. and Derek while you were growing up? Were you able to be in their cities and sort of observe what the NFL is like? Were you around the league that much?
A: No, not much at all. I probably got to one game of J.J.’s per year. And then this past season I wasn’t able to go to any of Derek’s. I definitely haven’t been able to get out to their cities as much as I would have liked to. And if I do, it’s typically during the offseason. I’m definitely not involved in-season with those guys as much face to face. But we are in contact with each other daily through the phone.
Q: I’m not sure if you saw the quote from J.J. on April 19, but he said you’re farther along at this point than he was and he thinks you’re better than he was at this point in his career. I know you guys probably have your own conversations, but when he puts something like that out there publicly, what does that mean to you?
A: It means a lot just because he knows how hard I work. We realize in this business a lot of people just see the results and they don’t see the work that goes into it. That’s a product of what you do. It’s awesome to see J.J. see how hard I’m working and I guess put it out in the limelight and show people that I do mean business and I am here to get better each and every day and play football as good as possible.
Q: What’s the athletic background of your parents?
A: I think my mom (Connie) played basketball a little bit growing up. I think she was like a cheerleader in high school so I don’t think she did much. My dad (John) was a wrestler, football player and he threw shot put and discus in high school. Then I think he threw shot put for maybe a semester in college, and that was it.
Q: So when you were younger, was your dad the one introducing you to football? Or did you find it on your own?
A: I think it was a little bit of both. For me it was a little bit different just because I was the youngest by five years for J.J. and two for Derek. By the time they were already in sports, I was still real young. I grew up going to their practices because my dad was the coach. I would be in second and third grade going to J.J. and Derek’s practices. I’d say that’s probably what got me really into football just because it’s pretty much all I knew growing up.
Q: At what point do you think you started to realize that your family has some pretty special athletic talent?
A: I don’t know. I remember tee-ball practice when I was in third grade or whatever (age) tee-ball is. And I remember the coach coming over and saying, ‘You definitely are more advanced than all the other kids here. What are you doing at home?’ And I think that just helps because I’ve been playing with my brothers my whole life. I grew up playing baseball on Derek’s teams until I was in sixth or seventh grade. I don’t know if there was ever a point in time where we're like, ‘Dang, we’ve got a special group here.’ But I don’t know, it’s just normal to me. This is all my life. It’s just normal to me. I don’t really stop and smell the roses. It’s all just normal to me, I guess.
Q: What was one of your favorite memories on the field at Wisconsin?
A: Favorite memory on the field was probably the Hawaii game (on Sept. 26, 2015). I think that was the first time I ever really played (outside linebacker) in a game. It was two years ago. I had all my injuries in both my knees and I sat out for two years, two-and-a-half years, and to finally get on the field and play was an awesome experience.
Q: How would you describe sitting out those two-and-a-half years with injuries? What were your emotions like during that period of time?
A: It wasn’t easy. There were plenty of nights where I would kind of question how important football is to me. It definitely made me stronger in the long run because it made me realize how much I do love the game. And I love every aspect of the game. I love the practice, I love the process of the offseason and getting bigger, faster, stronger. And I just don’t take anything for granted. I think even though it was such a downfall in my life to have those two injuries, it really helped me in the long run because I know how important the game of football is to me and how quickly it can be taken away. So I don’t take any of this for granted.
Q: Did you get a lot of questions about your knees from teams?
A: Surprisingly, no. The doctor that did them is Dr. Walter Lowe from the Houston Texans. He’s a phenomenal doctor and he fixed me up really good. I got scanned out in Indianapolis at the combine, and everything came out all right. I haven’t been asked about them since.
Q: At the combine you said you feel like you’re just scratching the surface in a lot of ways because you are still new to the position. What type of questions did you get when you met with teams at the combine? Were they trying to explore your knowledge of the defense because you are pretty new to outside linebacker?
A: I got just about every football question you can be asked. But I feel like I answered every question the right way and I think I did well. A lot of coaches were surprised at how knowledgeable I was of the game. In college and meeting rooms I knew at some point or another I was going to get asked about the whole defense, so when you’re in those meeting rooms in college, I just made it a point to know what everyone is doing and not just myself because once you get in those types of meetings, they don’t ask you just what your job is. They’re asking what does the safety have here? What does the corner have here? And certain things like that. I feel like I prepared myself well leading up to the combine.
Q: Do you like being a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme or an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system?
A: It truly doesn’t matter to me. I feel like I’ve only played this position for two years, so I don’t really know what I do best yet. I’m still trying to figure out what I do best. I just feel like it doesn’t matter what system I go to, I’m going to go 100 percent every single day and just do my best to learn the position and just learn the defense and the whole scheme and just do my best each and every day for whoever picks me.
Q: When you go through the process of the last few months, are you the type of person who likes to read the things that are being written and said about your draft stock?
A: I don’t really read it. If it shows up on my phone from someone sending it to me, maybe I’ll look at it for a second. But other than that I just try to control the controllables. I’m not a guy who is sitting here going, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s (only a few) days left.’ It’s a whole sit-around-and-wait game if you look at it that way. For me, I’m just training as hard as I can and just getting ready for whenever I do get picked to fly out and start OTAs and show the team what I can do.
Q: You were asked a variation of this at the combine, but I’m sure the notion that Packers fans want the team to pick you is everywhere. I get questions about it all the time wondering if you’re going to be the guy in the first round, or whatever the case may be. Do you feel the same things that writers notice on social media about Packers fans dying to have you stay in Wisconsin?
A: I definitely do. I did a card signing the other day, and it was all the Packer fans, probably every person in there. "I hope to see you in the green and gold." It’s awesome to see the support that team has, and obviously anyone who gets to play for that team it’s a special fan base, and it would be awesome to be a Green Bay Packer. But at the same time, I’m just keeping all options open knowing that you just never know what happens on draft night.
Q: As you get ready for this final week, is the emotion at all different than it was when this whole process started? Does it feel different now that the finish line is a few days away?
A: Not really. The only thing that’s different is my schedule is just empty now because all my workouts are done and all my visits are done. That’s the nice part about it is now I can just focus on working out and then hanging out and spending as much time with my family as possible because I’m going to be heading to a brand-new city pretty soon here.
Q: Have you thought at all about how you want to spend the draft weekend?
A: I think I’m just going to be hanging out with my family and probably a few close friends. No cameras or anything, just kind of real intimate hanging out with people who I’m closest to.
Q: Do you have an expectation in terms of the round in which you’ll be drafted?
A: No, I really don’t. You read all the time about mock drafts being wrong, and you really can’t read too much into that because no one knows what’s going on in the draft room except for that team. I’m really just kind of keeping open eyes, and whoever takes me, I’m just going to give them my best and just be happy to fly out there and just get things rolling.