January 06, 2011
The path of most first-round picks to the NFL is fairly straightforward: Well-regarded recruit, strong three-to-five-year career at one school, wait on the phone call. There are always a few guys who started as overlooked, two-star recruits, and a transfer or two, and occasionally a former walk-on. When Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt announced today that he's forgoing his senior year for the draft, he became the rare trifecta – a former two-star recruit who transferred just for the chance to walk-on at his home-state school, and still made good.
He's also the rare player who transferred up, moving on from a respectable freshman campaign as a tight end at Central Michigan in 2007 to a redshirt season on Wisconsin's scout team defensive line in 2008. Two years and 60 pounds or so later, Watt stood out not only for the Badgers – besides living in opposing backfields, he was third on the team in tackles in 2010 – even in a league loaded with heavy hitters on the defensive line: He finished second in the Big Ten behind unanimous All-American Ryan Kerrigan in both sacks and tackles for loss, and was a first-team all-conference pick alongside soon-to-be first-rounders Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward, and ahead of another likely first-rounder, Corey Liuget.
As for Watt's own projections, he could slide as high as the top 10 overall in an absolutely loaded class of defensive ends (besides the four first-round DEs out of the Big Ten, there's also Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, North Carolina's Robert Quinn, Cal's Cameron Jordan and Missouri's Aldon Smith, if he declares as expected). He's the only one of that group who ever had to earn his scholarship after arriving on campus, and the only one already intent on establishing his own foundation, to "spread the message to kids that if you 'Dream Big and Work Hard,' anything is possible." You can't argue with that. Well, you can, but not with J.J. Watt, anyway.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.