MANKATO — It all started in the choir room at the high school in Slater, Iowa, five years ago.
Just Chris Schaudt, then a skinny, 215-pound senior, alone with Minnesota State defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman. The two talked for an hour about football, academics and goals, for college and beyond.
It was then that Schaudt figured out that he should say no to walk-on offers at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa and accept a scholarship offer from the Mavericks. It was then that Klanderman knew he was getting a special person and player.
"I had a hard time figuring him out because he was so quiet," Klanderman said. "Camaraderie was big to him; he was really into the team aspect.
"He didn't really talk about stats. He just wanted to go somewhere where there were good people, and it was my job to assure him that he would be comfortable at Minnesota State."
Schaudt begins his final season as Minnesota State's all-time leader in sacks (27) and tackles for loss (147.5), growing from that skinny, quiet kid to an accomplished, confident leader. He still doesn't say a lot, but his words carry a lot of meaning in the locker room and meetings.
"If you buy into the plan these coaches have for you, you're guaranteed success," Schaudt said. "It's nothing really special that I've done. You stay around in the summer and work out and watch film. ... You just can't take a day off."
Schaudt's career has been marked by steady improvement. As a redshirt, he enjoyed the freedom of little reponsibility. On the scout team, he just did what he was told, paid attention to what the coaches and veteran players had to say and work hard.
He listened to defensive players Bryan Schmid and Mike Robinson and offensive linemen Jeremy Clark, Andy Schoonover and Adrian Battles, making use of their tips as he gained the necessary weight and strength to play the next season.
In limited action, Schaudt managed 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in his first season as a player.
"He was the third guy in our rotation, and you didn't really notice him," Klanderman said. "Then you'd get done and look at the stats, and he had as much production as anyone. He always showed up. At first, maybe you think it's luck, but it happened week after week."
The next season, Schaudt started to work on his body and technique. He became stronger in his lower body, taking advantage of angles to rush against less athletic tackles. He developed a mean streak to go with his wrestling background that made him tough to block.
By the time he entered his junior season, Schaudt was All-America material, putting up numbers like no other defensive end in program history and enjoying the best team chemistry of his career. This season, up to 270 pounds, he's trying to increase his speed and hand strength, and he hopes the bonding comes through like it did last season.
"I don't think anybody blocked him last year, and he matched up against some pretty good tackles, especially in the playoffs," Klanderman said. "A couple of pro scouts have come through to watch him, so I think he has a chance (to play professionally)."
Schaudt has been married for two years, and this summer, he interned with a financial-planning firm. He's making plans for his future, but he wouldn't mind getting a crack at professional football.
"I've always been able to balance things in my life," Schaudt said. "Football has always been my top priority, sometimes more than academics. I don't know if that's been good or bad."
The success of last season inspired Schaudt, and his teammates, to work hard in the offseason. Getting to the national semifinals, he was able to see how narrow the line between good season and great season can be.
"You need to pay attention to detail," he said. "There's no margin for error in the big games. Without good technique, you're opponent can get you off-balance.
"Our goal is to win a national championship, but you have to do the little things to be successful. If you take care of the process, the end result will be what you want."