HOUSTON — It won’t be too much longer until Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt can uncoil his powerful, 6-foot-5, 290-pound frame and deliver punishing hits to the blind side of an unsuspecting quarterback in an actual football game.
All eyes will be on Watt when the Texans enter training camp.
While Watt isn’t believed to have a personal countdown clock to inform him of approximately how many days between the close of a mandatory minicamp and the first day of full-contact drills at training camp, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is gratified to know it’s only 41 more days until the Texans report to The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.
Watt is admittedly restless, eager to hit someone after a spring spent running around and not being able to fully test out his surgically-repaired back. So, Watt stays focused, aggressive and determined to take out the frustrations that have built up since a Sept. 22 shutout road loss to the New England Patriots last season that represented his final game last season before undergoing a second surgery to repair a herniated disk and being placed on injured reserve.
“I don’t like to think about it like that because then you calm down and the aggression starts to build,” Watt said Wednesday. “I’d rather just kind of let it be just keep tugging on the chain, tugging on the chain and then someday they’ll undo the chain and then it gets to be real fun.”
Following a pair of microdiscectomies last year to address back problems that rendered Watt a shell of his usual dominant self – most notably being knocked to the ground by single-blocking against the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots – a new strategy for how to regain his formerly robust health was adopted.
Watt acknowledged he rushed back after his initial back surgery last July. Fully cleared for all physical activities since the first week of February, Watt took his time and remained patient with the healing process.
Watt has experienced no setbacks. The medical outlook appears promising for the 28-year-old pass rusher.
“I feel great,” Watt said. “I’m very happy with the way it responded. Obviously with the amount of time we took this time to make sure it responded properly, I hope it would respond the way it did.
“With a major injury, it’s so easy sometimes to think about it too much and to let that creep in the back of your mind. What’s been nice about these practices, is being able to let that fade and fade and fade. Having fun and playing football it feels natural. It feels good and I feel like I’m home.”
Home for Watt besides his residences in Houston and his native Wisconsin is the confined chaos of an NFL line of scrimmage. It’s the realm Watt has ruled heading into his seventh NFL season.
Fun-loving and charitable off the field, Watt has a nasty streak on the field. To transform that identity Watt takes on a different, more primal mentality.
“When you step across the white lines, it’s a completely different experience,” Watt said. “Off the field, it’s almost like you’re a different person and then once you step on the field, whether you want to or not, you turn into a different animal, because you have to. It’s a very violent game. It’s a very tough game. You have to be in a different state of mind. I’ve been playing tackle football since fifth grade.
“When you step on the field you have to turn into a whole other beast. I think that’s why it’s so addicting. That’s why guys who walk away from the game have such a hard time transitioning back into a life where they don’t get to transition into that beast because somewhere inside of them there’s that monster. Somewhere inside of them there’s that animal that wants to go out there and tackle people. I don’t want that to end yet.”
Watt has paid close attention to every whisper and suggestion he won’t regain the dominant force that’s allowed him to record 379 tackles, 76 sacks and 15 forced fumbles since being drafted in the first round out of Wisconsin in 2011.
Being limited to a career-low three games, eight tackles and 1.5 sacks brought Watt to a career crossroad.
If Watt can bounce back from this serious injury after combining for 38 sacks in 2014 and 2015, he’ll be a heavy favorite for NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
The next benchmark to measure Watt’s progress will come when he’s wrestling with blockers and getting involved in collisions that are akin to mini-car crashes.
“That’s definitely another step in the process,” Watt said. “Being out here, these are pretty darn close to hitting. To put on a helmet, play football, take some run blocks, get after the passer a little bit. I felt really good. I can never say for sure what’s going to happen in the future. Yes, training camp is going to be another one of those times where it’s like, ‘OK, next step.'”
The Texans are thrilled with how Watt has performed during organized team activities and a full-team minicamp, so much so that Texans head coach Bill O’Brien is already accounting for the difficulty of conducting practices given No. 99’s disruptive presence.
“He’s doing great,” O’Brien said. “He’s in great shape. You can just tell he just can’t wait to put the pads on and play. He’s a very difficult guy to go against when you’re in full pads, so imagine what it’s like when you’re not in pads. I’ve really been happy with our offensive line, but sometimes you have to get J.J. out of the practice just so you can complete a pass. You know what I mean? So, I think he’s in great condition and I know he’ll be ready to go.”