February 3, 2011

Blazing their own trail

MADISON - If there were a Mt. Rushmore of Wisconsin football players dating back to the Alvarez era, chances are former safety Jim Leonhard's face would be front and center.

If there were a similar monument dealing with guys that have played during the Bielema era there's a good chance J.J. Watt would be a fixture, nose scratch and everything.

Come the 2011 football season, the Leonhard and Watt tradition will live on. And it won't necessarily do so through the past.

Derek Watt, the middle brother of the Watt clan, is one of the 20 scholarship players in the 2011 recruiting class. Having originally committed to Northwestern, Watt decided it was in his best interest to bleed Cardinal and White when he found out one of the former verbal commits would take his previously offered gray shirt offer to rehab his shoulder.

So Watt, instead of being forced to join the team until spring of 2012, was able to secure a spot in the 2011 recruiting class as a scholarship player. That recruiting story, one with many twist and turns, is unique.

And that's exactly the way the coaching staff wanted it to be.

"You throw in Derek's situation on top of J.J. and all that he's going through this year," Bielema said at Wednesday's signing day press conference. "It got to a point that when we got back from the bowl game and I needed to sit with J.J. I was supposed to do a home visit with Derek that week, but I postponed it.

"I wanted Derek to have Derek's time."

That's the approach this coaching staff took throughout the entire recruitment of the younger Watt. While J.J. was blowing up on a national scale and emerging as a sure-fire first round draft pick, Derek was experiencing ups and downs on the recruiting trail.

He committed to Northwestern as a scholarship player and left UW's gray shirt offer behind. Though some would probably think the Badger coaching staff would turn sour when a kid shuns them, they simply didn't.

They said 'congratulations and best of luck and if anything were to change, let us know.' And when things changed, Watt was welcomed back.

It was his unique recruiting tale.

"It's (similar) in a lot of the same ways as to when I was recruiting Nick Toon," Bielema said. "I didn't want it to be the Al Toon show. That's more of a conversation once we get them here."

Tyler Leonhard, a 6-foot, 158-pound defensive back, is kind of like his older brother. He didn't get that scholarship offer early on, but he has the type of attitude needed to find success anyway.

You don't even have to look that far back to find a former walk-on having success in the Badger program. Sure his brother is one of the all-time greats and his story is one of great interest and intrigue, but you can look at a guy like Chris Maragos, Ricky Wagner or Jared Abbrederis and see the proud tradition of Badger walk-ons turned contributors.

Leonhard, though he's got the pressures of living up to his brothers lofty shadow, is in much the same boat as Watt. They both have to deal with those expectations. And they're both happy to give it a shot, though their paths will be completely different in many ways of their siblings.

"Both of them are great kids for what they are," Bielema said. "The name Jim Leonhard has meant a lot here, but Jimmy has come and gone. Those guys are going to have to set their own ways.

"They'll have to live up to the reputations that they want to set."

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