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Watt extreme force of nature

Bears face severe challenge in Texans' exceptionally effective 2nd-year defensive end

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

10:54 PM CST, November 7, 2012

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The Texans made second-year defensive end J.J. Watt a captain this week. This was after the media pronounced him defensive player of the year about a month ago. And after defensive coordinator Wade Phillips put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in training camp.

Phillips told the Houston Chronicle, "He's going to be a bust — not a first-round bust, but a bust in the Hall of Fame. The only players I've seen who can do what he can do with his intensity can be found in Canton."

Phillips' tongue was in his cheek. Wasn't it?

Well, if any player in his second year ever could appear to be headed to Canton, it is this one.

You couldn't have a more complete package in a player the Bears will have to contain Sunday night in Soldier Field.

It starts with physical skills.

Watt is 6-foot-5, 295 pounds with 34-inch arms and a wingspan of 821/2 inches.

He can move so gracefully, he would be a good candidate for "Dancing With The Stars."

At the 2011 scouting combine, Watt ran the 40-yard dash in 4.81 seconds. His vertical leap was 37 inches and his broad jump 10 feet. And his three-cone drill time of 6.88 was exceptional.

He even did field drills as the world's biggest outside linebacker. And many teams thought he could play the position.

Watt is bright (his 31 Wonderlic score was best among defensive linemen) and instinctive. His motor could power the Queen Mary.

Even when Watt was injured in training camp, he was hustling. Watt couldn't practice because of a dislocated elbow, so he spent his time carrying water to teammates and catching balls one-handed from the jugs machine.

The balls he didn't catch, he surely batted down. Watt already has 10 bat-downs this season.

Phillips compared Watt to Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Elvin Bethea — Hall of Famers he has coached — in terms of feel for the game.

"He just has a sense for playing football," Phillips said. "Some guys make the right decisions — whether to go around the block to make the play or through the block, when to get your hands up, how to beat a guy. Some guys have it. He does."

Watt has more of it now than ever. He is better as a pro than he was as a college player.

He was not highly recruited out of Pewaukee High School in Wisconsin. He went to Central Michigan, and current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly used him as a blocking tight end as a freshman. Then he was asked to move to offensive tackle.

Instead, he enrolled in a junior college and got a job delivering for Pizza Hut. He eventually showed up at Wisconsin as a walk-on with a pizza-sized chip on his shoulder.

As a redshirt defensive end, Watt played scout team and kept disrupting the offense's practices, often going up against teammate Gabe Carimi, who he will line up against often Sunday night. He earned a scholarship and became a starter the next season.

He ended up with 111/2 sacks over his college career. But he has 191/2 in the first 26 NFL games, 101/2 this season.

"I don't know if anybody could have foreseen J.J. being as impactful as he has been this quickly," Texans general manager Rick Smith said.

Part of Watt's success has to do with how Phillips uses him. Unlike most defensive ends in a 3-4 front, Watt is not "two-gapping" often. Phillips turns him loose to get the quarterback.

"When you have a guy like this, we have to let him do what he does best," Phillips said. "I found that out with Elvin way back."

Watt has played 85 to 90 percent of his snaps at left end, Phillips said. Part of that is because his dislocated left elbow would have been a problem in a right-handed stance. But the elbow is better now.

Watt will move around to avoid the strength of a formation, or to get a particular matchup against a guard or tackle.

Phillips tries to keep Watt away from a lot of double-teams.

"We move him around some, have different 'dogs' where they have to be one-on-one," he said. "If we rush five guys and you have five linemen, they might help with a back or something. But you can get guys one-on-one."

If Watt gets many one-on-ones Sunday, it is likely to be a very happy game for the Texans.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei