- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott seems like the last player a coach would need to challenge.
Whether he's in the weight room (where Scott made his mark as a young player), the film room (where Scott spends practically all his time) or the field (where he has excelled this fall), the Wildcats junior has taken the same thorough approach. It's all about the process for him.
"He's as low-maintenance of a guy as there is in the country," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He just works. He doesn't know anything other than work. He doesn't want a sticker on his helmet, he doesn't want a special T-shirt, he doesn't want a steak dinner.
"He just wants to work."
And that's precisely why Wildcats defensive line coach Marty Long challenged Scott in September. See, Long believes every player should be challenged, even ones like Scott who seem so easy to coach.
"He was playing well, but we needed him to play great," Long told ESPN.com. "I made a statement that we had one D-end that was playing at a Big Ten level, and that was Quentin Williams. Ever since that point in time, I think he's been playing Big Ten-level football."
More like All-Big Ten-level football. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Scott leads the Big Ten in sacks (7) and is tied for the league lead in forced fumbles (3).
Scott has recorded four sacks and two forced fumbles in his last four games. He has recorded at least one tackle for loss in seven of nine games for No. 24 Northwestern. And he has played most of the season with a club on his left hand, the result of a broken finger.
"I didn't take it in a negative way, more of a motivational way," Scott said of Long's challenge. "I'm always going to give the most effort I can, but for him to say that, that's kind of taking a shot at my pride because I do work so hard."
Scott is hardly an overnight sensation at Northwestern. He had to redshirt the 2009 season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. After a strong offseason, he worked his way onto the field as a reserve, appearing in all 13 games in 2010.
He moved into a part-time starting role last season and seemed to be turning a corner before a shoulder stinger shut him down for two weeks. During a five-game losing streak, Scott lost his grandfather and admits he "lost his edge a bit."
It was a season of what-ifs for Scott, who came close on a lot of sacks but recorded just one on the season for one of the nation's least effective defensive lines. He often got too far up-field on his rushes, and he spent much of the offseason working on becoming more active with his hands.
"I don't know exactly what it is," Long said, "He's making a lot of plays, but he's upset about the ones he doesn't make. I'm happy with his play right now. He'll look at me and say, 'I'm not happy.' That's the type of guy that you want to coach."
True to form, when asked about his spike in sacks, Scott barely acknowledges the ones he has recorded this season. Instead, he brings up a scramble by Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg that resulted in a Iowa first down in Northwestern's last game.
"I didn't get to the up-field shoulder," Scott said. "I definitely came through and totally missed, swung around and he escaped the pocket and got a first down, which kind of reminded me of last year."
Long says Scott embraces Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of constant, continuous improvement, which Fitzgerald introduced at Northwestern several years ago. That may be true, but Scott links his approach a little closer to home -- to his parents, Bette and Rodney, both of whom played sports in high school.
"A big family value is to be humble," Scott said. "My mom always tells me it's not about you as a person, it's about how the team does. The goal is winning that week. If you played well, it's because your teammates helped you get there."
Northwestern has played better team defense this fall, making sizable jumps in categories like rushing defense, scoring defense and sacks from the 2011 season. But Scott has stood out up front, putting himself within striking distance of Northwestern's single-season sacks record of 12 set by Casey Dailey in 1997.
Long likens Scott to Joe Tafoya, part of the famed "Desert Swarm" defense at Arizona, where Long coached defensive line and outside linebackers from 1996-2003. Tafoya went on to a seven-year NFL career.
"I would say he's a better football player than Joe Tafoya," Long said.
Informed of Long's claim, Scott smiles, shakes his head and mumbles some cliché about just trying to improve and help the team win. Any praise for his play is going to come from others, like Fitzgerald, who this spring proclaimed Scott is, "on the cusp of being a breakout guy nationally."
His words have proven prophetic.
"A lot of times you look at guys and you go, 'If he just worked a little harder and his work ethic matched his talent, he'd be a great player," Fitzgerald said. "Tyler's that guy who does that. He's got outstanding talent, and he matches it with a terrific attitude and a terrific work ethic."