LINCOLN — David Santos glances at the front row of Nebraska's linebacker meetings and sees three seniors who showed him the ropes.
Will Compton, Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley talk most. A soft-spoken redshirt freshman, Santos watches, listens and learns. If he has a point to make, he'll pipe up, but this is still a senior-dominated room in pursuit of a Big Ten title. And Santos said it'll be “weird” when Compton, Fisher and Whaley leave.
But the linebacker room could be more competitive — and athletic — when they do.
Santos — who had 10 tackles in a 23-9 win over Michigan — will lead the charge of young linebackers Nebraska's spent three years recruiting. The three years NU has known it would be in the Big Ten.
Ľ There's Santos, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder who can run underneath pulling guards the way former All-American Lavonte David did and wolf down mobile quarterbacks like Northwestern's Kain Colter. When Santos grabbed Colter from behind on an option play for a 2-yard loss two weeks ago, linebackers coach Ross Els said Husker coaches were impressed.
“He probably should have gone outside of the defensive end to make the play because we were actually a guy short,” Els said. “But David saw an opening and said, 'You know what? Quit being a robot, I'm going to take it.'”
Ľ There's junior college transfer Zaire Anderson, who might have played ahead of Santos this year if not for a torn ACL. Anderson should get a medical redshirt and have two more years to play.
Ľ There are three touted true freshmen — Jared Afalava, Thomas Brown and Michael Rose — earning praise for their work on the scout team. Brown is seen as a hybrid pass-rusher like Eric Martin.
Ľ And three more recruits — Josh Banderas, Courtney Love and Marcus Newby — committed for the 2013 class.
Aside from Brown, each player was or is a four-star prospect according to at least one major recruiting service. It's a quickly assembled portfolio of talent at a position where the Huskers had little depth after their final year in the spread-heavy Big 12.
“They knew they'd have an opportunity to be the next generation of 'backers here,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I think they see their opportunity is staring them in the face in about six months.”
Santos doesn't have to wait after playing a big role in NU's last two wins. Nebraska coaches agree that there's a place for Santos in November, even as the Huskers shift toward facing more pro-style offenses.
“He can run, he's explosive, he can play in the open field and do some good things,” coach Bo Pelini said. “Now he's to the point where he's not going to hurt us.”
The suburban Houston native was a playmaker at Klein Collins High School. His recruiting tapes show a forward-leaning tackler running sideline to sideline, frequently meeting players at or behind the line of scrimmage. He had 107 tackles as a junior and 136 as a senior, winning the Houston Touchdown Club's defensive player of the year award.
And though he had already verbally committed, Santos attended the right game on his official visit to NU: the Huskers' 31-17 romp over previously undefeated Missouri.
“It was lights out from the very beginning,” Santos said. “I was sold on the way they played.”
With David, Compton and Fisher last year handling most of the linebacker duties, Santos redshirted in 2011. He called the experience an “eye-opener” because of the jump in talent from high school to college. Santos said Whaley especially explained the dynamics of the meeting room and showed how much work it would take to play at NU.
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Whaley, a Texas native who admits he struggled with grasping the defense, had walked the same path.
“Guys like Zo have been in and out of things, and he will be real with me,” Santos said.
By spring 2012, Santos was making strides and earning occasional reps with the top defense. In fall camp, Els said, all the pieces of the defensive puzzle started to fall into place for Santos. And still, he played sparingly for the first month.
First, Whaley had the starting Will linebacker job through the UCLA game. Then Anderson played vs. Arkansas State before doctors discovered the torn ACL. And Wisconsin's tight end-heavy formations better suited Whaley's game.
But after Ohio State gashed Nebraska's front, Santos said, Pelini and Co. tweaked the defense during the bye week to take away some of the reads and turn loose more playmakers.
“We simplified some of our calls,” Santos said. “We've gone to some of our more traditional calls. It allows us to focus on what we need to do for that call. We execute a lot better when you can focus on one thing.”
But Michigan threw plenty at the Huskers, Els said, and Santos held up to the complexities that involved multiple fakes and a fleet quarterback in Denard Robinson.
“They take both backs and fly them that way and then pull a guard and center and go (the other way) for the quarterback,” Els said. “You have to know which one overrides which. 'Do I follow the backs or do I follow the line?' When you get complex and hesitant, you go, 'What do I do?' (Santos) is not that way.”
Nor can he be. Unless Fisher applies for a sixth year of eligibility — he has yet to decide if he will — Santos will be the most experienced linebacker on the roster. For all the talent clustering behind him, he'll be the guy in the front row answering questions.
“I have a feeling we will be fine and everything will work itself out,” Santos said.
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