EAST LANSING - In the span of just two short seasons, Kyler Elsworth has gone from a feel-good story to an integral part of the success of Michigan State's top rated Big Ten defense.
A former walk-on, who cut his teeth on special teams before working his way into in-game reps on both MSU's goal line and nickel defense packages, Elsworth has come to epitomize the need for a guy with big play ability that every defense needs to be successful throughout the course of a season.
Not bad for a guy who came in as just another fullback.
In the corporate world, you could say his promotions on MSU's defensive packages would be akin to starting in the mailroom of a company and making it to a seat on the executive board in a short amount of time.
Of course, his rise in the ranks hasn't come by accident. The one thing Elsworth has proven since his arrival is once you tell him something, he commits to the task at hand and puts himself in a position to get better and make himself better.
"Just this year, I think it started off with (Chris) Norman at the nickel spot and just over time, I got a couple of reps in practice and did well and got to move over to the nickel backer, said the 6-foot-1, 220 pound Goodrich native, in trying to explain why he's gotten to where he's at. "Last year, the one thing they told me was that I needed to work on was my pass coverage. I worked on that in the offseason and I guess it worked out for me.''
Part of the reason it's worked out is because Elsworth has different approach than most when it comes to playing and playing time. Because he's a former walk-on and had to earn everything he's gotten, he's constantly in a state of hunger to make himself better.
"Exactly. Everyday, I'm reminded that I came in here and had to work my tail off to get a scholarship (which he received before the start of the 2011 season) because all of my roommates, all of the guys I live with, they're all walk-ons. So I still see myself as a walk-on. So every opportunity I get, I still think of it as the only opportunity I'll ever get, so I have to make the most of it.''
As a result, he's gone from a guy that people questioned as to why he was in on certain situations to the guy that people are glad to see on the field in those situations.
"Last year, I think it was like 'okay, well, he did it in practice, now let's see if he can do it on the field,' '' Elsworth said with a smile. "This year, I feel a lot of people are feeling more comfortable and that I can do it when I'm out there.''
In the process, he's also become proficient and knowledgeable at all three linebacker positions. The latest, at middle linebacker.
"Now, I'm at MIKE linebacker too so I've kind of played a lot of positions and moved around a lot but I like it. It works because it helps me see the defense as whole, as a big puzzle and how it all fits together.''
While he is no threat to unseat junior starter Max Bullough in the middle of the Spartans' defense, Bullough acknowledges how well Elsworth adapted to the difficult and challenging tasks he's been given over the course of his career.
"He's a real good player. He's a guy that's backed me up for awhile now and he comes in on 3rd down and plays a lot of plays,'' said MSU's leading tackler. "He's another guy that's worked his tail off and I think it's really paid off. I'm proud of him and I feel good for him. To see him move up from every special teams spot to where he's at now is a good story and points to what you can do as long as put your mind to it and work hard.''
Elsworth's story has not only been accompanied by consistently positive contributions but big plays that have helped alter the course of games, as evidenced by his punt block in last season's victory at Spartan Stadium over Wisconsin.
While Elsworth, a former two-time state champion wrestler who turned down a handful of sure scholarship offers in wrestling to walk-on at MSU, credits his work ethic, determination and perseverance as major factors in his meteoric rise to success, his timing has played a significant role in his promotions and rewards of more responsibility on defense.
Take this season for example.
In limited appearances off the bench through nine games, he has surpassed all of last season's production numbers, which he accumulated in appearances in 14 games.
Entering Saturday's 3:30 p.m. showdown with No. 21 Nebraska, he has just eight tackles, but inside those eight tackles, he has provided three tackles for loss, including two sacks, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery.
That means, just as he did last season, when he recorded 37 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and a a half sack and a forced fumble, Elsworth continues to prove that timing is everything, further enforcing the idea of quality over quantity.
"I don't know about making the big play or the nose for the ball that people say I have,'' he said. "I mean I'd like to think I have a nose for the ball but it's really just about what coach says, 'do your job and if everyone does their job, then the big play will be made.' So I guess I've just been the guy fortunate enough to be able to make the play or the sack. It's really just about everyone being on the same page and communicating with me. I mean, I wouldn't be running through free and unblocked if it weren't for the down linemen. So I really just think it's everyone doing their job.''
Bullough seemed somewhat amazed but pleasantly surprised by his teammates production and his ability to make the big play. Almost to the point that he insinuated that one of MSU's best chances to thwart Nebraska's strong offense on Saturday will need help from another big play by Elsworth.
"He's a playmaker. You put him in the game and he makes plays in the right spot at the right time'' Bullough said. "He always been like that, if you've watched his work on special teams. So he's just another guy that brings a spark . We try and put him in there exactly where he's best at making plays and that's why he's been so successful. He's got a knack for a lot of things and when you put him in that situation, he's very good.''
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