CHICAGO — Nebraska's Will Compton speaks like a man these days who has responded to some sort of life-changing wake-up call.
Why else would he commit to a complete self-transformation project?
Trouble is, there was no distinct catalyst. Not that Compton can pinpoint, anyway.
Maybe it was a realization that his freshman and sophomore years were full of personal underachievement. Or the departure of former Husker Lavonte David, who pushed Compton like no other teammate had. Or one-on-one film sessions with Bo Pelini. Or a conversation with Rex Burkhead on a plane ride, when the two talked about a sports psychology book that fortified the running back's confidence.
Something, whatever it was, sparked change within Compton, a driven 22-year-old senior linebacker who is the Huskers' unquestioned defensive leader. He's tweaked the way he lives, making off-the-field adjustments that he hopes will make a difference when the helmet and pads are on this fall.
“Everybody wants this complex reason for trying to get to the next level, being successful, doing what they want to do in life,” Compton said. “But really, it's honestly the simple quotes that you hear growing up. That's it. Work hard.”
In every aspect of your life.
When friends get potato chips, Compton eats spinach. Instead of video games, he tries to pick up a book — which was once an unthinkable substitute for Compton, who hated reading so much growing up in Missouri that Mom used to get phone calls from teachers about subpar book reports.
Compton has not only conducted detailed film breakdowns of every game in 2011, but he's also reviewed old tape from Urban Meyer's offense at Florida. He's analyzed clips of Northern Illinois, which sent its offensive coordinator (Matt Canada) to Wisconsin.
He meets regularly with Pelini. And defensive coordinator John Papuchis. And position coach Ross Els.
“I don't know what did it, what's changed, what's matured me throughout the years — but I want to know everything,” Compton said.
He made significant strides on the field last season, especially during the second half. He finished with 82 tackles, seven behind the line of scrimmage.
Compton directed traffic before snaps, lining up the defense and barking out orders as opponents settled into their formations. He mastered a particular up-the-middle blitz, in which his goal was to take offensive linemen out of the play and allow David to drag down a ballcarrier.
“Midway through the year last year, he played his best football,” Pelini said. “He's really comfortable right now. He's really confident. He just has great leadership skills. He's not afraid to step out there and stick his neck out. He's a really good leader.” The Huskers certainly need Compton to maintain that standard.
A defense that was already vulnerable in 2011 is now without its three biggest stars (David, Alfonzo Dennard and Jared Crick).
Compton must produce. Others, too, Compton said. It'll take a collective effort to replace them.
“Seeing the defense work as a unit is awesome,” Compton said. “You get everybody wanting that same thing, that's dangerous.”
Contact the writer: