MADISON – The year began with Derek Watt doing something ultra cool and transcendent, all in the name of brotherhood.
A surprise Christmas gift evolved into a two-week adventure abroad — traveling to Ireland, England, France and Italy — with his brothers J.J. and T.J.
The three, all part of an emerging University of Wisconsin football legacy by way of Pewaukee, bonded over world history, culture, food and their good fortune.
They sat in slack-jawed wonder inside the Colosseum in Rome, reflecting on their gladiator roots amid the smell of ancient conflicts.
They did training runs through the streets London with Big Ben as a milestone and did the same in Paris with the Arc de Triomphe as their guide.
The three returned home with a heightened sense of appreciation for their lives and one another. J.J. resumed his NFL career as an All-Pro defensive end with the Houston Texans, while Derek, a junior fullback/tight end, and T.J., a redshirt freshman tight end, returned to UW.
Derek said the trip — funded by J.J. and documented in part on social media — was “special’’ and “life-changing.’’
Perhaps the best photo — displayed on T.J.’s Twitter account — showed the three wearing newly purchased European pea coats and striking the same serious, chiseled pose with the Colosseum ruins as a backdrop.
“We definitely cherished the experience and how cool it was to spend time together and see some incredible places,’’ Derek said.
Now Derek, along with his younger brother, is in the midst of another extended brotherhood project, one that will officially begin Saturday night in Houston when the 14th-ranked Badgers open the regular season against No. 13 LSU at NRG Stadium.
UW is a mysterious entity — new quarterback, new front seven, new receiving corps — and Derek Watt is part of that narrative.
Is he a fullback? Yes, he’ll line up in the offensive backfield where he can serve as a lead blocker, take a handoff or serve as a pass-catching option.
Is he an H-back? Yes, he’ll split out to the near edge of the formation, line up just behind the line of scrimmage and factor in the run game as a blocker or catch passes.
Is he a tight end? Yes, he’ll take his place on the line of scrimmage and either set the edge as a blocker or become a pass-receiving target.
Asked to identify Watt’s best position, UW coach Gary Andersen smiled and launched into an overview of all the matchup headaches Watt can create for opposing defenses.
Andersen, who cut his coaching teeth as a defensive coordinator, said opponents have to account for each of those three positions differently and each schematic look presents varying degrees of stress.
Just think of all the issues that can arise if Watt, listed at 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds, starts at fullback and goes in motion to either H-back or tight end.
“He’s a rare talent because he’s a very smart fullback,’’ Andersen said. “He’s not just ramming it in there. He plays very physically, but he’s also very smart. He can leverage people in the right way and kind of set blocks up as a fullback.
“But he does have tremendous hands. He’s a very good athlete. He’s proven to catch the ball very, very well.’’
During the offseason and throughout training camp Watt has met more with Jeff Genyk, the UW tight ends coach, than Thomas Brown, the running backs coach.
Genyk lauded Watt on multiple levels, from his student-of-the-game approach to learning the position to his thirst for knowledge.
Watt needs to know two pass patterns as a fullback; for UW tight ends there are 62.
“He’s done an excellent job of learning all the pass routes,’’ Genyk said. “He’s amazing from a route-running standpoint, understanding coverages, when to break off routes, how to reduce routes and catching the ball with your hands.’’
The Badgers have a diverse collection of full-time quality tight ends, but Genyk said Watt is the toughest to cover because of his speed, instincts and attitude.
“He’s a very good receiver,’’ Genyk said.
“His toughness and football knowledge is noteworthy, too. He’s so focused in team meetings and takes copious notes.
“He’s a student of the game. I look for him to be a great weapon.’’
Watt, who began his time at UW career as a linebacker, has 15 career receptions for 170 yards and one touchdown. He also has one carry for 8 yards.
One memorable journey is in the books.
“It was mainly just a brother trip to catch up, have a great time and do something we haven’t done before,’’ Derek said. “It was a blast.’’
Another grand experience, all in the name of brotherhood, waits.