By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) Bret Bielema couldn’t help but laugh.
Asked to look back on some of the great practice battles between J.J. Watt and Gabe Carimi at the University of Wisconsin, the Badgers head coach chuckled before painting a very competitive picture.
“I remember one occasion during practice where I was watching the play, following it naturally along the outside edge to the right and I’d look back to my left and my two best players are entangled in a little fight on the ground,” Bielema said Tuesday.
During Wisconsin’s 2010 Rose Bowl run, Watt and Carimi were the Badgers’ top two NFL prospects going up against each other every single day in practice. They also happened to be two of the more competitive, hardest working players on the team.
And they weren’t exactly buddy-buddy.
“Me and J.J. weren’t friends or anything, but I respect him,” Carimi said Wednesday.
Bielema painted a similar picture.
“They are two of our alphas. They definitely are A-Personality types that love to be dominant on the field,” Bielema said. “I know they are going against each other just out of respect. As many one-on-ones as they could handle, as many situations as they could compete against each other in practice, they jumped at the opportunity even when our coaches weren’t necessarily putting them in those spots.”
It paid off. They were both drafted in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt to the Houston Texans with the 11th overall pick and Carimi to the Chicago Bears with the 29th overall pick.
Now, nearly two years after they last went head-to-head on a practice field, Watt and Carimi will face each other on a much bigger stage and it wouldn’t be surprising if a clash between the two helps decide Sunday night’s game between the Texans and Bears at Soldier Field.
But things have changed since Watt and Carimi last played together in a 2010 Rose Bowl loss to TCU. Both players have switched positions and, more notably, Watt has gone from a mere possible first-round selection to arguably the most dominate defensive player in the NFL.
“He’s a relentless guy,” Carimi said about his old teammate. “He’s a hard worker. That’s who he is.”
Carimi agreed with the notion that Watt practices like he plays — a similar label Carimi had coming out of college — but neither player is expecting to see each other Sunday night as much as they used to.
Watt is now a defensive tackle in a 3-4 scheme and the Bears moved Carimi from left to right tackle after drafting him. At Wisconsin, Watt was the No. 1 defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, matched up against Carimi on almost every practice rep.
“I don’t think it pertains as much because while he does line up at defensive end sometimes — five-technique — a lot of times he’s going to be on (right guard) Lance Louis,” Carimi said.
Still, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips moves Watt around a lot and the two former teammates are bound to run into each other several times Sunday night. And in that case, Carimi doesn’t envision either player having an advantage.
“I mean, we played each other. We know each other well so we know all our (moves),” the Bears’ right tackle said. “There’s not going to be any advantages because he has the same advantage (I do), so it’s just evened out.”
Watt might not see it the same way though.
“I’ve learned a whole lot since then,” he told the McNeil And Spiegel Show on 670 The Score Tuesday. “I’m a much different player, I play a much different position now. Everything has changed, and I’m sure he’s changed too.”
There’s no question Watt has gotten a lot better. He leads the league in sacks with 10.5 and he’s eighth in the league — first among linemen — with 10 pass deflections. To put that in perspective for a defensive lineman, the next closest is Minnesota defensive end Brian Robison, who is tied for 42nd in the league with six passes batted down.
Watt’s pass deflections have become nearly as famous as Bears cornerback Charles Tillman’s ball punches and the defensive tackle says he has caused four turnovers this season by getting his hand on passes.
“It’s something I’ve been working on since college,” Watt said. “I think it’s something that comes with time and comes with a lot of practice. You know pretty quickly, pretty early in a rush if you are going to have a successful pass rush or not. So as soon as you figure out you’re not going to make it to the quarterback, you try to find another way to impact the play. And for me that’s taking a quick step back and jumping up into the passing lane.”
Carimi said Watt batted passes down at Wisconsin too — he was second on the 2010 Badgers with nine pass deflections — but he’s done it a lot more in the NFL because he’s playing inside now. Carimi said to combat that, you need to hit Watt low so he won’t want to jump up.
And you can bet Carimi wants the opportunity to put a hit or two on his former teammate.
“I’m always happy when a Wisconsin guy is doing well, but now I get to block him,” Carimi said. “He can’t do well against us obviously, but I always wish him luck.”
Considering the season Watt is having, it might be the Bears who need the luck.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.