Aug 29, 2013
By Todd Burlage
Chris Watt is a contradictory enigma disguised as an offensive lineman.
“Mauler” is the operative word used by Notre Dame coaches and teammates when asked to describe Watt’s playing style.
“Friendly” is the most popular answer when asking about Watt in his everyday life.
“I’m a different guy on the field than I am off, no doubt about that,” says Watt, in many ways the heartbeat of the Irish offensive line this season. “I want to be thought of as a good guy who played as hard as he could every play for Notre Dame, but also as someone that everyone can approach.”
That’s Chris Watt – a nice guy 99-percent of the time, a mauler and one of the nastiest offensive guards in the country the other one-percent … and a total slob 100-percent of the time, at least according to Zack Martin, Watt’s longtime roommate, teammate and gossipy best friend.
“Living-wise, he is horribly messy,” says Martin, not hesitant to share some verbal dirty laundry about Watt’s ubiquitous dirty laundry. “He just leaves stuff everywhere. I don’t know how I put up with it.”
What are best buddies for?
A story about Watt or Martin is impossible to tell without including input from both. These two standouts have been joined at the hip almost literally since they arrived on campus in the summer of 2009 as part of the final recruiting class built by former head coach Charlie Weis.
Now both legitimate NFL prospects, the two veterans have started and played next to each other in every game the last two seasons – Watt at left guard, Martin at left tackle. The pair also has roomed together since their first day on campus and both delayed NFL aspirations after last season to return for a fifth year at Notre Dame.
“That was a pretty easy decision,” Watt says of returning this year. “I always thought I would be coming back for a fifth year, and just to have another opportunity to play here for another year is just amazing. I knew if they were going to have me back, I was going to come back. I am very thankful to have another year.”
As a vocal leader, a four-year starter and the man patrolling the outside against an opponent’s best defensive lineman every game, it’s Zack Martin and not Chris Watt who grabs most of the praise and headlines on the Irish line, and that’s just fine with Watt, who puts aggression ahead of attention.
“Zack does a great job of being a captain, being that vocal guy,” Watt says. “That’s his role and he is perfect for it. He commands so much respect on the team.”
But what Watt lacks in media notice, he more than makes up for in effort, excellence and efficiency. “Leading by example” is often overused when describing players, but not when discussing Chris Watt.
“I feel like I know my role on the team, and that is to demonstrate toughness,” Watt says. “I’m comfortable if I can just demonstrate on the field how to play. When I need to be vocal, I’ll be vocal. But I realize what my role is as far as being a senior leader on the team, and that is to never take a day or a play off.”
Watt says the secret of his success – and really the principle of his aggressive playing style – is rooted in a message he received as a high school junior from his prep coach, Chad Hetlet, at Glenbard West High School outside of Chicago. Coming off a 1-8 season in 2006 when Watt was sophomore lineman, Hetlet was hired to change the climate, and the evolution of a player and a program didn’t take long.
“Coach (Hetlet) gave us that attitude of how you are supposed to play. (The coaches) did a really good job of staying on me and not letting me slide by with the little things,” Watt says. “The message was `play through the whistle, echo the whistle.’ That’s what I’ve been taught and that’s what I’ve been trying to display at all times.”
A roughneck older brother also helped Watt develop the toughness and tenacity necessary to play his thankless position. Kevin Watt was two years older than Chris and a starting defensive end at Northwestern University, at the same time his younger brother was being recruited out of high school by nearly every Big Ten school, including Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Northwestern.
Following Kevin to Northwestern, staying close to home and competing against big brother in practice – as he had already done almost everyday in the backyard growing up – was appealing, until one campus visit pushed Notre Dame to the top of the commitment list.
“Watching the team play for the first time, it was amazing to see all of the tradition and the national attention,” Watt says. “Notre Dame just felt different than the other schools. It immediately felt right.”
Like most offensive linemen, Watt had to wait his turn and take a redshirt season as freshman in 2009, watching and learning behind standout Irish linemen Eric Olsen, Trevor Robinson and Chris Stewart.
Watt was a special teams regular and earned some spot work on the offensive line as a sophomore in 2010. His audition as a backup helped secure him the starting left guard spot in 2011, and he has never looked back, becoming a bulldozing force in an Irish rushing attack that averaged 189.4 yards per game in 2012, its best output since the 2000 season.
“I want to be the best guard in the country, and there are no magic tricks about getting to that point. There are no shortcuts when it comes to excellence,” Watt says. “You have to do things 1,000 times. You got to watch film. You have to really focus when you’re out there.”
Now and Then
Ask any Irish coach or player, and almost all will name Watt as the toughest guy on the team. Nothing keeps him off the field and his desire to finish every play is legendary. Watt has played in all 39 games the last three seasons and become one of the most bruising guards Notre Dame has ever fielded.
“Chris is much more a straight-line, physical, knock you in the mouth kind of player,” sasys Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who immediately drew comparisons between Watt and Martin, the top guard-tackle tandem in the country. “They take care of themselves. They are committed to being in great shape and taking care of all the things they need to off the field as well. They live the right way.”
Watt may be somewhat overshadowed on his own team, but when the time comes for the NFL Draft combine and pre-draft evaluations, his bad attitude, impressive footwork, bullish style, and 6-3, 321-pound frame will not go unnoticed.
“(Watt) brings a toughness to the offense that the entire line and offense follows,” Martin says. “He’s a great guy to play next to.” Watt admitted that the temptation to peek ahead to the start of his professional career is always there. But by applying some lessons from high school recruiting – when he was rated as the No. 1 offensive linemen in the Midwest – he stays grounded and in the moment.
“There was an opportunity (in high school) where you could look ahead and start thinking about what it was going to be like playing college football,” Watt says. “But at the same time, you have a season going on, you got to help your team out.
“So I kind of take an approach that way, where I’m just focused on really helping our team win, and our offensive line be the best in the country. I feel like if we can accomplish that and I do my part, everything else will fall into place. So there isn’t much point in worrying about it now.”
When football ends, Watt already has graduated with a marketing degree and completed some job shadowing programs in retail consulting.
Obviously, Watt hopes those real-world career aspirations are many years up the line, after a long and successful NFL career ends. But whatever obstacles, choices and opportunities Watt will face after he leaves Notre Dame, there is no doubt he will handle those with the same head-on approach he used in every game against every opponent while he was here.