LINCOLN — At the start of each week when Nebraska’s linebackers gather in the meeting room to get their new game-plan responsibilities, the players don’t really know what to expect.
They figure senior middle linebacker Will Compton, the consistent and reliable centerpiece, will be on the field for nearly every snap, regardless of how an offense lines up (spread or jumbo) and what type of players it uses (big and powerful, or quick and elusive).
But that’s about it.
Who lines up next to Compton? That changes to begin every week.
Shoot, the linebacker lineup can get reshuffled and reshaped during a week. It might even undergo drastic alterations between possessions on a Saturday afternoon.
Nebraska’s mixing and matching its linebackers more than it ever has under coach Bo Pelini, using the scouting report to shape its substitutions instead of the traditional depth chart.
“I think part of coaching is taking guys and saying ‘OK, what do you do well?,’” Pelini said. “And try to play to their strengths. I think to a certain extent, we have been able to do that, according to the challenges we have faced week to week.”
In other words, the Husker linebackers’ playing time is being dictated more by the opponent than their own overall performance.
When Nebraska thinks offenses will use a downhill attack, it counters with its base defense, featuring Compton and two physical contact-seekers — seniors Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher — at linebacker.
If an opponent subs in a third receiver (removing a player from the box), NU drops down to a two-linebacker formation and the agile David Santos steps in next to Compton. Or sometimes it’s Whaley. And lately, former safety Justin Blatchford’s been contributing there, matching up against tight ends or bigger receivers.
Sophomore Corey Cooper’s in the mix, too — still technically a defensive back, though he’s in the linebacker meeting room about half the time.
“We’re able to take a lot of the pressure off some of the guys in knowing every assignment in every position,” said Ross Els, the NU linebackers coach. “The formations and the plays they’re seeing, when you start specializing, really shrinks down and they can play a lot faster.”
This is actually how Els envisioned it in August.
He kept getting pestered with the unanswerable question: How are you going to replace Lavonte David?
You can’t, Els would say. Not with one guy, anyway.
“Offenses are too good right now to find one (linebacker) that can do a lot,” Els said.
So Els is relying on six, whose duties are constantly tweaked. And he said he’s grateful that the Husker players have responded well to the constant uncertainty.
Fisher had at least six total tackles for three straight weeks until recording just one unassisted stop Saturday against Minnesota — Pelini went out of his way Monday to say that Fisher’s played “really well.” Santos had a 10-tackle game during that Michigan win, but has six total in the three weeks since.
“Everybody does a great job of playing their role and doing their thing and just taking care of themselves for the betterment of the team,” Compton said.
The specialists are enjoying one unintended benefit, too. Their bodies don’t endure the typical physical pounding associated with a 60-minute game.
“I really like the energy and focus our guys take the field with,” Els said. “If they don’t have to play 70 snaps and they can play 40 or 50 snaps, they’re that much fresher.”
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