MADISON, Wis. -- Defensive end J.J. Watt will leave Wisconsin early to apply for entry into the NFL draft.
In a letter to Badgers fans posted on a school website, Watt said the decision to forego his final year of eligibility was one of the most difficult of his life -- but his dream is to play in the NFL.
"I will be a Wisconsin Badger for life and am forever grateful for all of the love and support that the fans, administration and community have shown to my family and I during my time in Madison," Watt said. "I could not have asked for better coaches to play for, better teammates to play alongside, or a better fan base to represent throughout my collegiate career."
Watt had 21 tackles for loss this season and played a leading role for a team that made it to the Rose Bowl, where Wisconsin lost to TCU.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema said Watt will be missed.
"I talked with multiple people connected with NFL teams on J.J.'s behalf to make sure he had the best information to make an informed decision and one that he was comfortable with," Bielema said in a statement. "He is a terrific example of what we want our student-athletes to be, both on and off the field, and he will be missed."
It's another sign of offseason turnover for the Badgers. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren was named head coach at Northern Illinois in December, and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has been linked with an open job at Texas.
Watt thanked his family, friends, teachers, coaches and teammates for their support.
"As I move forward with my life, I will continue to live by the morals and values that have helped to get me where I am today," Watt said. "I am very excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for both myself and for the JJ Watt Foundation, as we try to spread the message to kids that if you 'Dream Big and Work Hard,' anything is possible."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press