Thrown Into Spotlight, Watt Doesn’t Shrink PITTSBURGH — There’s a row of five lockers that head into Ben Roethlisberger’s corner. Maurkice Pouncey begins the section, then an empty, and then Marcus Gilbert.
Markus Wheaton had been crammed between Gilbert and Roehlisberger, but he’s been replaced by first-round draft pick T.J. Watt.
The Steelers are throwing the kid right into the spotlight.
“T.J., talking about that new contract!” came the darts from the veterans.
Watt had just signed his four-year, $9.3 million contract with a $4.9 million bonus. The vets joked that Watt needed to share the wealth, regardless of the fact that he — at $2.3 million per year — was still the poor guy in that neighborhood.
How DID he end up on Hall of Famers Row?
“Ha, I don’t know,” said the quiet and intense rookie. “I came in and that’s where I was at.”
Cameras circled him. Watt became the center of attention as the vets laughed and hooted. It was a mere taste of the media climate in this corner.
“Yeah, I think,” he shouted over the din. “I don’t know. It’s a lot of fun in this locker room.”
A quiet, serious guy, but not too serious. That seems to sum up the personality of the Steelers’ first-round pick.
While Watt provided little inclination to be interviewed, he thoughtfully interacts. And he remained patient through the 10,000th question about advice from his brother J.J.
“Just to stay in the playbook and learn everything you can,” T.J. said, “so when you get out there you just kind of let loose and let your natural ability — what you were born to do — let that all take over.”
Watt’s also a hockey fan. Played the game while growing up in Wisconsin. Cheered for the Red Wings and Blackhawks before he began cheering for the Penguins.
“I was really happy to watch their games,” he said. “To see the Pens win the Cup was pretty impressive.”
The rest of his answers — unlike his fumble return for a TD that day during the “Seven Shots” 2-point conversion competition — were routine:
* “I know the playbook pretty well right now and now it’s time to take that next step and to start making plays.”
* “I’m just trying to do my one-eleventh and make the defense as good as possible.”
* “There are a lot of (playbook) nuances that still are tough to understand, but I feel like I’m definitely getting the grasp and that’s allowing me to play more and more faster and to interact with those guys better.”
* “I like getting out of the city and coming back into the city and seeing it, especially coming in through the tunnel and just seeing how gorgeous this city is and seeing what it all has to offer.”
His massive hands softly and routinely pull in interceptions, and his body control leaves little doubt as to why Wisconsin played Watt at tight end for two years.
Could he play that position again, in spots, one day?
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said. “Right now I’m just here playing linebacker and trying to do my best. When the ball’s in the air I’m just trying to go get it anyway possible.”
Watt also has shown an innate quickness coming off the ball this spring. In fact, he’s been winning so many “get-off” contests — as judged at the start of practices by Mike Tomlin — vets are grumbling that Watt’s replaced Lawrence Timmons as “Mike T’s favorite son.”
“I don’t know if it’s success or Mike T just likes him,” Cam Heyward said with a laugh.
James Harrison filled in for Tomlin on the final “get-off” call of the spring. The vet tried his best not to say Watt’s name, but he had to.
“He didn’t even want to say it!” Tomlin shouted. “See, that’s what’s been going down!”
It was an admonition to all of the vets that Tomlin’s calls hadn’t been biased.
“Yes, he does have good get-off,” Heyward admitted. “He’s a good player. I know he’s not a finished product, but he’s got a good start. Level head on him and he’s eager to learn. That’s all you can really ask right now.”
Alejandro Villanueva’s assessment of Watt — after a month of banging heads with him — was published a few days ago. But it’s too good not to run again.
“He doesn’t make mistakes,” Villanueva said. “That’s rare and very impressive. He knows how to disguise the plays. He knows his responsibilities. Then the second thing is he plays with a lot of confidence. And he plays very well with his hands. He understands protections and the offensive line, so he shows a lot of maturity that you don’t usually see. He’s also a guy who’s using moves. He’s not just relying on athleticism. He’s a very athletic kid but he’s not relying on it. He’s really putting thought into the game, so I’ve had a lot of fun going against him for the past month.
“It’s not easy coming in and not knowing what to expect,” Villanueva added. “But he’s just come in here and worked really hard. He doesn’t take a play off. It’s annoying to go against a guy like that, but he knows that it’s one of his strengths, like his brother, relentless. He’s got high expectations and works really hard. Because of that I predict that he’s going to be a very, very successful player in the NFL.”
Underneath the hooting and hollering the veterans dish out, there’s respect for Watt. Even his salty position coach, Joey Porter, wouldn’t rule out Watt from starting ahead of Porter’s friend Harrison this season.
“As many practices as we had, I can count his mistakes on one hand. That’s rare, so I’m good with where he’s at,” said Porter. “Anything going farther, we’ll just see how it goes.”
They have to see Watt hit. That, of course, is still a part of football.
Otherwise, this spring has been a good one for Watt, who used those first-team reps to maximize his time.
“It was good to get out there and get a lot of reps with the ones and get used to the speed of the game,” Watt said. “Obviously it’s going to change once the pads come on, but it’s good to get out there and learn the terminology. Getting thrown in there helped me weekly. Just to know the terminology and the pace of the game helps me fly around.”
Flying around and making plays. Now that would make him everyone’s favorite son, even on Hall of Famer Row.
T.J. Watt passed just about every test thrown at him by the Pittsburgh Steelers this spring. Jim Wexell has the details.