September 10, 2010

For defensive line, Saturday's are block parties

MADISON - Could you imagine J.J. Watt on a volleyball court?

You could park him in front of the net and the opposing team probably wouldn't have much success setting up scoring opportunities against him because he would probably be a force blocking spikes.

Even better yet, have Watt play the low block as a center on the basketball team. Anybody trying to drive the lane on the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Watt would likely run into a roadblock that redirects any shot at the rim from inside the paint.

Who am I kidding? Just keep Watt at defensive end on the gridiron and let him do his block thing there.

It seems to be working.

"It's just something I've been working on over the past year or two," Watt said earlier this week. "The thing I focus on is the quarterbacks eyes. As soon as I see I'm not going to get there I see his arm cocked back and I see where he's looking.

"That's when I know I'm ready to put my hands up. Hopefully I'll get lucky."

Apparently Watt has been doing enough good to have luck on his side. Or maybe when something happens as much as batting balls down at the line does for Watt, it doesn't become luck anymore.

It simply becomes habit.

"After a while it becomes like muscle memory," UW safety Aaron Henry said. "It becomes instinctive. As we all know J.J. used to be a tight end so it's just like a knack for the ball in general. I think our whole defensive line is doing a great job of doing that.

"If they can continue to do that they're going to definitely make our secondary look a whole lot better."

When focusing on the eyes of a quarterback, defensive players have about a four-inch space in the facemask to hone in on. Then you add in the fact that they're constantly getting pushed and shoved around and it becomes more difficult to stay tuned into the eyes.

So where does the knack come from?

"It's something I developed over time," Watt said. "I've worked a lot with our quarterbacks just watching them and seeing what they do. The problem I had with UNLV in the first half was that their quarterback was a lefty. I had never played against a lefty before.

"I actually missed one that I was pretty upset about because I went to the right arm instead of the left one."

No, that wasn't the dropped potential pick-six that Watt has been getting ripped for by his teammates all week. This one was a separate occasion that could have given Watt even more pass breakups than his Big Ten leading three he accumulated in that season opening win.

And you can expect that stat to stay true all season long because the art of Watt breaking up balls, and the Big Ten's No. 2 man in the department Louis Nzegwu (two PBU's) complimenting him, this theme is here to stay.

It was prevalent all through spring camp, it was prevalent all through fall camp and it was prevalent all through the win at UNLV.

"It's something that we consciously work on," Watt said. "And it's something we need to keep improving because it's going to help out our defense a lot."

Bret Bielema says there are a couple of things that serve as prerequisites for the batted ball. One, being tall helps and two, being instinctive and having a knack for the ball is required.

"I'm not sure where it comes from," Watt said. "I played basketball just my senior year but I played baseball, hockey…it's really just all quick twitch muscles and all that kind of stuff. It's just kind of an instinct that I've grown into having played defensive end for two years.

"It's finally coming around."

Both Watt and Nzegwu have experience as offensive players during their football career. Nzegwu was a standout running back at Platteville (WI) High School before coming to UW and switching to the defensive side of the ball and Watt was a well-documented tight end early in his college career before coming to UW.

Maybe it's those offensive instincts that have something to do with the success each is having in batting balls down so far this season.

"I think anytime you play offense in high school it's only going to help you as you move to the defensive side in college," Henry said. "You know how they think. You know what they like to do. Even if you haven't played it may take a little longer, but I'm sure as a defensive end for J.J., from being a tight end and knowing what to expect from the offense, he knows when those guys are going to step back and throw the ball and where they're going to look.

"Like I said, after awhile it becomes muscle memory and it becomes easy."

For a member of the UW secondary such as a Henry, there is nothing better than seeing one of the big men up front reaching up and getting their claw on the ball before it essentially gets started in its route to the intended target.

"I know sometimes in practice it can be frustrating because we want to get work, too," Henry said. "But he does that all the time. It's only going to help us. Maybe he can keep batting the ball down or maybe somebody can get a pick off of it.

"If he continues to do that they might have to move him to tight end."

...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now!