An initial version of this story appeared in JR Radcliffe's Preps Alcove sports column before the 2016 NFL season.
Derek Watt hasn’t always taken the first available path to his success. For that success to continue in the National Football League, he’s now the one in charge of making the path, literally.
Once committed to be a linebacker at Northwestern University after serving as a ball-carrying force for the Pewaukee High School football team, Watt nonetheless ended up as a predominantly blocking fullback at the University of Wisconsin. That turned out to be the best course of action now that he’s a fullback looking to make the San Diego Chargers as a sixth-round pick in last spring’s NFL Draft.
He practiced his entire redshirt year as a linebacker at Wisconsin, playing behind veteran and future NFL standout Chris Borland.
“He was obviously established and had one more year left,” Watt recalled. “There were two more weeks left in the fall camp before the season, and the running backs coach (Thomas Hammock) had been talking to me about an opportunity to get on the field and get a shot. So at practice the next day, Coach B (Bret Bielema) just called me over and told me to ‘hit that guy on this play.’ I did it, and he said, ‘We can work with that,’ and it took off from there. It wasn’t in talks before that came, and a couple days before the season, I made the switch.”
He played in 47 games and made 24 starts at fullback at Wisconsin, and he participated in two bowl victories as a junior and senior. In 2013 and 2014, the Badgers posted two of the three best single-season team rushing performances in program history, and he also went out with a bang by recording 32 yards rushing and two catches in the Holiday Bowl win over USC on December 30.
“As a fullback, especially with the running backs we had, I'm not expected to get the ball that much,” Watt said. “We really only tested out (plays that gave Watt the football) the last game of the regular season and bowl game, and never really did anything with it outside of that. Based on success we had with it, I wish we would have done it a little more, or at least a little more consistently rather than end-loading it, but I was grateful for the chances I did have.”
In 2012, he helped block for Montee Ball, who set the FBS record for career touchdowns, and in 2014, he blocked for Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon, now a teammate with the Chargers.
“The biggest thing is terminology and a little bit is scheme change, but we're doing the same relative job we did in college, and it’s good to be back (with Gordon) with a little chemistry that we have,” Watt said. “It’s fun to rekindle that fire a little bit.”
Watt’s new home at Qualcomm Stadium also happens to be where he played his final college game in that win over USC. He wasn’t sure the NFL would come calling or if he’d have to go knocking on its door.
“On that day of the draft, I had been talking to my agent, giving calls to teams a little bit,” Watt said. “I had an idea there was a good chance I could get drafted, but at the same time, there was a very good chance I wouldn’t. There's a freedom aspect (going undrafted), having some choice, picking your situation. But I was very fortunate and extremely happy to get that phone call and become a Charger.”
He became the third Pewaukee alumnus drafted into the NFL, joining older brother JJ and Chris McIntosh. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Watt saw the bulk of his playing time on special teams but has been on the field every game.
At Pewaukee, Watt’s teams were a frequent challenger for the Woodland Conference crown and a deep run in the playoffs. Watt finished with the school’s single-season rushing record and points record.
“We had some pretty good teams when I was in high school; we had a small but a great senior class,” Watt said. “We kind of struggled throughout youth football, but we stuck through it with the core guys that were around and had a pretty successful senior season, even though we did haven’t a lot of numbers.”
Naturally, his last name won’t go unnoticed in the NFL as younger brother of JJ Watt, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the Houston Texans. Playing such different positions will keep comparisons to a minimum, though it was still a topic of conversation Nov. 27 when the teams met, even with JJ out for the year with injury. Derek, who started at fullback, and the Chargers got the win, 21-13.
“He's obviously a lot bigger than me, and our positions are quite a bit different skill sets, but general comparisons are always going to be there,” Derek said. “He’s basically told me to keep open eyes and open ears, keep your mouth shut and let your work to the talking.”
Like JJ, Derek found big-time success in Madison even though it wasn’t the initial destination. JJ played his freshman year at Central Michigan, and Derek committed to NU with only a grayshirt offer from Wisconsin.
“I had a grayshirt offer, and I had a scholarship offer to Northwestern, as well, and I was kind of the one and only linebacker they were going to take,” Derek said. “Wisconsin had Jake Keefer and Derek Landisch, two of my really good buddies, but I would have been one of three. They wanted me really bad, a great school, and I took visits. Wisconsin ended up giving me a full offer right off the bat (before the start of a redshirt season), and it was kind of hard to say no.”
The Chargers couldn’t say no, either. Watt now gets a chance to take it from here.