LINCOLN — He’s already at 98 tackles — 14 of them for loss. He won the NFL’s Rookie of the Month award Thursday, and he’ll spearhead the defense’s December march toward the playoffs.
Observers in Tampa are already penciling in Lavonte David as a long-term star for the Buccaneers. A potential heir to the Derrick Brooks throne. The former Nebraska All-American has already done in the NFL what he did last year for the Huskers. Sense. Seek. Attack.
And yet here is NU heading into the Big Ten championship ranked 21 spots higher nationally in total defense than it was a year ago this week. Here is an NU defense without David, Patriots starting corner Alfonzo Dennard and Texans tackle Jared Crick that’s not merely holding up to the 2011 squad, but surpassing it.
“We’re a smarter defense,” linebacker Will Compton said. “We’ve been in the system longer. We’ve got more veteran guys. The work we put in during the off-season, the leadership.”
There are fewer eye-popping individual plays like the ones David made. There are also more sacks. More takeaways. Better rush defense since the 63-38 loss to Ohio State. And, yes, worse Big Ten offenses; five of NU’s league opponents were ranked 80th or worse in total offense.
But most of all, Compton said, there’s simply a chemistry and understanding of what the defense can be on a given play. A cohesion epitomized by three senior linebackers in Compton, Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley.
They’ve grown in the program together and have become friends off the field. They’ve each battled injuries until this year when, crucially, they’ve all been healthy, linebackers coach Ross Els said.
And Whaley said they’ve come to grasp how meticulous coach Bo Pelini is about the role, and how detailed he needs them to be. The linebackers make plays, but maybe not for the same reasons David could so easily make them on instinct and talent.
“It’s about making sure that we understand the offenses that we go against and not just relying on our ability to get the job done,” Whaley said.
Whaley’s interception late in the Iowa game was an example.
As the 36-30 loss to UCLA showed, Whaley’s strong suit isn’t covering tight ends and running backs in the slot. He even volunteered to come off the field against certain offenses. But he stayed on the field as the Hawkeyes muddled through their two-minute drill, and he found himself covering a tight end.
Pelini had twice called a heavy middle blitz that not only pressured Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg to throw quickly, but reduced Whaley’s exposure to coverage. On that blitz, Whaley’s job was to sit on a short slant route that would inevitably become Vandenberg’s hot read. Whaley had to trust it would happen as Pelini said it would. If he didn’t, the pass would be an easy gain.
“I knew the ball had to come out fast, so I knew it wouldn’t be a deep route by any means,” Whaley said.
Whaley waited on the pass, jumped in front and ended Iowa’s final scoring threat. It was another chapter in the development of a player left off the 2011 fall camp roster. David started in game one of his two-year career and rarely left the field after that. Whaley has bounced in and out of the lineup and come back for more.
“He’s all about winning football games,” Pelini said. “What he never did was he never turned tail and went the other way. He continued to work hard and prepare himself to get better.”
And Pelini wants more. Despite holding Iowa to 200 total yards and seven points, Pelini wasn’t particularly pleased with how his linebackers played. He didn’t care what the statistics said. On Monday, he even stopped Compton in the hallway of the Memorial Stadium press box to tell him things had to be — and would be — fixed, particularly on Compton’s end.
Five years in, Nebraska’s veteran players are still learning.
“We chase perfection,” Compton said. “Even though you never reach it. But there’s always another level you can reach, and there’s always a standard that you hold yourself to. (Pelini’s) seen the way we’re capable of playing multiple times and he holds us to that standard. That’s what we chase.”
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