Watt flourishes as pulling guard
Jack Hefferon | Thursday, November 15, 2012
“I had a dream last night that I was a muffler. And I woke up exhausted.”
If you’re talking about senior Chris Watt, that’s usually the best way to start.
Throughout his life, Watt has opened everything from his high school commencement address to class presentations – even his speech at the pep rally before playing Stanford last month – with that same gem.
It’s a peek at the lighter side of the 310-pound left guard, something opposing defensive linemen don’t get to see on Saturdays.
“When I’m off the field, I try to keep things light and be funny,” Watt said. “But I can get serious when I need to, and during practice and the games that’s definitely where I’m at.”
For the past four years, Watt has made his presence felt as one of the grittiest players on Notre Dame’s roster. Whether pulling or pass blocking, his speed and nastiness have set the tone for and powered the Irish, making Watt more motor than muffler.
“He brings the toughness to our offense, and he’s got to be the toughest guy on the team,” senior tackle Zack Martin said. “He’s played through injury, especially this year, and he brings that mentality to our whole offense.”
Watt has had a pedigree of excellence, even before he arrived at Notre Dame. His brother Kevin was two years older and a starting defensive end at Northwestern, while Chris himself was a five-star recruit and was pegged by many as the best offensive line prospect in the country.
Coming out of Glenbard High School on the west side of Chicago, Watt received scholarship offers from most of the Big Ten, including an opportunity to follow his brother to Evanston. The offer to line up against his brother every day – like they had always growing up in the backyard – was certainly appealing. But once he visited Notre Dame, Watt knew that he had met his new family.
“Being here and meeting the players I was going to be playing with and the guys in my class, I really bonded with them,” he said. “I got to see a game here for the first time, and to see all of the tradition behind that was unbelievable. Everyone loves Notre Dame – or hates it – and it was cool to be put in the spotlight like that, especially with the opportunity to play on national TV every week as well.”
And while Watt didn’t go to Northwestern with his brother, he still had Kevin to go to for guidance, especially as a freshman. As a redshirt player dealing with the jump to college both athletically and academically, Watt said that having that lifeline was a huge part of his transition to Division I athletics.
“It was tough, but at the same time Kevin was very supportive of my decision,” Watt said. “I called my brother and talked to him all the time. Being able to talk to a brother who had already gone through the process was really important. He really helped me through that camp adjustment period.”
Watt waited his turn that year, and found a role on special teams as a sophomore. Still, he wanted to make an impact on the line, and kept preparing for his chance, learning from upperclassmen like Eric Olsen, Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson. Watt’s chance finally came in a pressure-packed environment four games into the season, and he took full advantage.
“On the road at Boston College was the first time I got in for meaningful snaps, and I loved it,” he said. “It was an awesome experience, and I think my adrenaline was at an all-time high. But that all came because I was able to learn the offense over the spring and the summer, and then perform it on the field.”
Watt’s excellence in spot work as a sophomore sprung him into the starting lineup as a junior, where he proved to be an important cog in one of the nation’s most successful units. In the 13 games that season, the offensive line allowed just 17 sacks and powered the running game to an average of 4.8 yards per carry, both the best marks by an Irish line in well over a decade.
The left side of the line was particularly solid, as Watt had Martin lining up directly to his left. The two linemen have been roommates since that first summer of minicamp, and have shared the basement of an off-campus house for the past two years.
The two are nearly inseparable both on and off of the field, watching movies together during the week, then pounding defensive linemen over the weekend.
“Having that relationship off the field helps a lot,” Watt said. “It’s great to have a guy with that kind of experience on your left side, and a guy where you know that he’s going to have your back and you’re going to have his. There’s a lot of trust there.”
Watt has continued to pave the way for the Irish this year, and usually has Martin right there beside him. As a result, the Irish have favored the left side of the line in much of their running game, letting Watt and Martin lead the team to victory with ‘Power Left’ after ‘Power Left.’
“Chris and I have the same mentality, and we’ll do whatever we can to help the team,” Martin said. “We know when our number is called on the left side, we’ll be ready to go.”
Watt was ready and able during Notre Dame’s most important game in almost two decades, on the road three weeks ago at then-No. 8 Oklahoma. The Irish looked like they wouldn’t be able to keep pace early on, as halfway through the first quarter the Sooners had already amassed over 100 yards – compared to Notre Dame’s meager nine.
But then Irish coach Brian Kelly dialed up a trap run to the left. Watt took a quick step to right, then wrenched all 309 pounds of Sooners senior defensive tackle Casey Walker with him, turning Walker a full 90 degrees. Senior running back Cierre Wood burst through the gap Watt had just vacated, then scampered 62 yards untouched to put the Irish on the scoreboard and keep them in the game.
“[Offensive line] Coach [Harry] Hiestand always tells us that we’ve got to do our job first, and use our technique, and obviously that’s what I had to do on a play like that,” Watt said. “Then lastly, you’ve got to whoop your man’s [butt], and that’s what we try to do every game.
“I feel like I’ve done a really good job of being really physical this year, and getting after my guy and playing hard has been one of my strengths.”
Looking ahead – even past a bowl game in Pasadena, Glendale or, he hopes, Miami – Watt is quick to assert that he’ll be back for a fifth year, despite having solid NFL prospects and a mid-to-high round draft projection.
“Obviously I’ll check and see the process, but I definitely want to come back for that fifth year,” he said. “I’ve grown up playing football, and in coming here that’s one aspiration that I’ve always had, is to play at the professional level. You think about it, but I try not to, because there’s really nothing better than being 10-0 at Notre Dame with your buddies and the whole campus vibe around you. It’s been great.”
After what he hopes will be a long career in pros, Watt said that he will leave the world of football behind – but not the professional world. The marketing major plans to make the most of his degree, and continue on the tremendous experience he’s had as an undergrad.
“Professors are amazing here. I have a few marketing professors that I feel I can go talk to whenever I want,” he said. “I definitely want to go to graduate school when it’s all said and done, hopefully after a professional career. I really would like to go into brand management.”
Watt still has plenty of football left to play before then, and plenty of classes left to take. And even though he’ll likely return for a fifth year under the Golden Dome, Watt is making sure that he continues to cherish every second of his fourth.
“A lot of people talk about the community of Notre Dame, and you can definitely feel that when you come here,” Watt said. “It’s a wonderful place to go to school, and everyone is passionate about everything that they do.
“For me, it’s running out of that tunnel. It’s kind of clichÃ©, but I still get chills every time. I can’t believe it’s all gone by so fast, but it’s such a great feeling.”
Contact Jack Hefferon at firstname.lastname@example.org