Four Colorado State football walk-ons earned scholarships over the course of 2016 fall camp. Junior linebacker Patrick Elsenbast was not one of them.
On Saturday against the University of Texas-San Antonio, Elsenbast started at “mike” linebacker, finishing the game with six tackles.
Elsenbast is unique in that he is a walk-on playing significant snaps for this football team. Last season it was special teams. Last week, it was as a starter.
Elsenbast was called into the starting role by defensive coordinator Marty English after the team failed to be productive from the “mike” position in the Rocky Mountain Showdown.
His six tackles, to go along with Josh Watson’s eight (Watson started against CU), was the kind of production English was expecting from that position.
But to an outside eye, Elsenbast certainly does not fill the expectations of what a “mike” linebacker should look like.
Elsenbast stands 6 feet 1 inch tall and is lucky to weigh 215 pounds soaking wet.
Because of his size, outsiders might never have expected Elsenbast to produce as a defensive player in a game, or even start a game for that matter.
But for English, Elsenbast, and this CSU team, Elsenbast’s emergence was certainly never meant to be a novelty, rather, it has been in the works for a long time.
English said that he wished Elsenbast was 230 pounds instead of the 210 range, Elsenbast will be the first to tell you that he wishes that too, but he’s not going to use that as an excuse.
His body might not look like your prototypical middle of the field run-stuffer, but he makes up for that with his mind.
A dedicated student of the game, Elsenbast enjoys the challenge of studying opposing teams and learning what they are going to do offensively. Forming an intrinsic knowledge of the other team’s offense allows him to read plays quicker, and arrive at the point of attack sooner.
If he knows what the other team is going to do before they do it, then he can be there first. That’s why he spends so much time preparing; that’s where all of his film study comes from.
He is also a technician of linebacker technique. He can not be the biggest player on the field, but that does not stop him fron being the most fundamentally sound.
Former undersized CSU middle linebackers come to mind when trying to put a label on Elsenbast. Linebacker Kevin Davis compared him to Max Morgan. Aaron Davis or even Deonte Clyburn could also be included in that mix.
Morgan and Davis made up for their physical shortcomings by being the most technically sound and studied players on the football field. It’s the same approach Elsenbast takes.
He says he learned from the best.
“They (Morgan and Davis) just went out every single day in individual, it didn’t matter what drill or what rep, they went one hundred and ten percent and they just like perfected it,” Elsenbast said. “I just saw the way they prepared. I just tried to take after what they did.”
English said that to be an undersized linebacker in the middle of the field, you have to have a certain toughness and confidence in your game. You take pride in playing that position, and playing it well, especially if you are not the physical model of a “mike” linebacker. Morgan, Davis, and now Clyburn all had that.
So does Elsenbast.
“Patrick is downhile, your old school typical mike linebacker,” defensive lineman Jakob Buys said. “(He’s) all downhill, just coming to knock you out. You really don’t even notice that he is only like 210 pounds, he’s ready to come hit you.”
And like Morgan and Davis, Elsenbast takes a certain pride in being technically sound. He has too. If he’s not, that’s when he really feels like he is 210 pounds.
It’s that love of the fundamental aspect of the game pushes him into his next chapter of his life.
At CSU, Elsenbast is double majoring in history and education. For an athlete, it has future coach written all over it, and that’s exactly what Elsenbast is trying to do.
The history part he got when he was a kid. A self-proclaimed history buff, Elsenbast grew up in a family of educators, reading through American history books.
“For some weird reason, I don’t know why, I can remember the most random dates and the most random events,” he said. “But if you put me in a math equation or some chemistry question, I won’t know what to do. History just came natural.”
Also from an early age, Elsenbast knew he wanted to coach later on in life. He loved practices, he loved his coaches, and he loved the technical aspect of sport.
“We will see where the road takes me, I don’t know if I’d ever want to a be a college coach but high school, I’d love to be there and you know that’s just all about fundamentals and stuff like that at that level,” Elsenbast said.
He is a dedicated student of the game he plays now. It’s what sets him apart.
At the same time, he can’t wait to pass that on to someone else. Ideally as a football coach, but if a school needed a freshman basketball coach, well, he would be glad to take that too.
His desire to be a coach helps drive the way he approaches the game, and vice-versa. Youth sports and the high school level are all about getting the most out of kids who might not be as physically talented by hashing out the fundamentals.
It all fits Elsenbast to a tee.
“I’m not the fastest, or the biggest, or the strongest so it’s kind of like the suit I had to fall back on,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in my hard work off the field. Studying, working my butt off in fundamentals; that’s what I have to fall back on. That’s what a coach is, that’s kind of what they do.”
A three sport athlete from Chatfield High School in Littleton, Colorado, Elsenbast had options to get a football scholarship coming out of high school. The University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University-Pueblo both offered the linebacker.
But Elsenbast had to weigh out all of his options when Colorado State linebackers coach Marty English came calling.
CSU might not of extended a scholarship offer to the linebacker, but Elsenbast could not pass up an opportunity to head to CSU and play under the tutelage of English.
“Coach English always came coming back, (He) always kept calling me,” Elsenbast said. “For me, a Colorado kid seeing Marty English coming and just wanting to talk to you, that’s like just amazing so it’s like you know what CSU is where I want to be. I always said I always might be in doubt or in some regret if I never took a shot.”
Ever since he arrived, he has a had a clear understanding of his role.
No matter what the team asked him to do, he was going to do it. Be it supporting his teammates on the sideline, becoming a special teams player, or for now, the starting Mike linebacker.
Through it all, his approach has never changed, even if his role on the team might have.
That’s why English said he did not see anything different out of Elsenbast on the day he got the start. He was excited, as anyone would be, but Elsenbast attacked that game the same way he attacked coming into Colorado State as an undersized walk-on.
“That’s what he does day in and day out. His preparedness and his approach to football and his love of the game has been the same,” English said. “It didn’t matter if it was all special teams, or if he was gonna be on the sideline and have to cheer everybody on. His approach is what I want everybody’s approach to be.”
Elsenbast’s approach to the game has earned him plenty of respect from his teammates along the way, walk on or not. He thinks he has done enough work, and done it the right way over these last four year years, that his teammates have taken notice.
They have, and it was an exciting experience for his teammates to see Elsenbast on the field as a starter.
“With the amount of work that he puts in, and again his approach to everything, I think people were excited for him. I really do,” English said.
Now that he’s started a game, Elsenbast says there’s still no satisfaction, and he always wants more, but at the same time, he still sounds like the same kid who walked into CSU four years ago looking for any way to help the team.
“Whatever I’m asked that’s what I’m gonna do,” he said. “If that’s special teams, if that’s to be the backup, if that’s to be the starter, wherever my role is that’s my job. I’m gonna focus on it. Im gonna do it.”
He is a player completely in-tune with his responsibilities on this football team.
To compete as a walk-on, you have to be hungry, and Elsenbast is, but he is also humble.
There have been a lot of tough days in his years at CSU, but from fellow Chatfield product and former CSU walk-on, James Skelton, Elsenbast learned how to handle those terrible days.
And he learned what to look to when those days did come. For Elsenbast, it was what he found out way back when going through youth football practices. He loved the game.
“You just gotta look back and say why are you playing,” he said. “It’s for the love of the game. That’s why I never gave up. I always stuck with it.”
He did always stick with it, no matter his status in the program. He’s completely self assured in what he is doing, and why he is here.
“It doesn’t really matter how many scholarship offers you had or how many you stars you had or if you even had a scholarship offer. I think what matters is what you do when you get here. I think I really have earned the respect of a lot of my teammates. I don’t even think about being on scholarship or not right now,” he said.
He said the only time he ever had any doubts about what he was doing here, and why he was sticking through everyhting as a walk-on, he was a freshman, and he put it out of his mind real quick.
In the end, it all came down to one simple thing. The same reason he is here now.
“I was part of the team, I had a job to do. I played ball,” he said.
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5