LINCOLN — David Santos listened to Will Compton for so long that it seems strange to no longer hear the voice of his former Nebraska football teammate, whether it’s at practice or in the weight room or in meetings with the linebackers.
Santos even jokes that he half expects Compton to suddenly be there during one of these spring practices, letting him have it for doing something wrong or sharing a piece of advice.
But Compton isn’t coming back, and same goes for Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley from the Huskers’ linebacker corps of a year ago.
“It’s just college football,” Santos said Monday. “You move on, you get new players, and I’ve come to realize they’re gone.
“They definitely set the standard — mentally, physically and effort-wise — and I think they left a real good example for me. I’m trying to spread it out to the young guys who haven’t been here as long.”
It’s also possible that Santos could end up following the footsteps of Compton even a little closer than he previously thought.
The sophomore-to-be has worked at middle linebacker in the Huskers’ first two spring practices after being a backup weakside linebacker last season. It’s the position that Compton held for 37 starts over the last four years.
The Husker staff first dabbled with Santos there in preparations for the Capital One Bowl, then told him in January to get into his playbook and be ready to give it a run in the spring.
“He didn’t bat an eye,” assistant coach Ross Els said. “He said, ‘Absolutely. Let me go work on that.’ He’s done a great job.”
Els, however, warns that the whole thing could change at any time. Nebraska is going to mix and match and be trying different things at linebacker all spring. It has some versatility with a talented bunch of underclassmen and wants to be thorough in its evaluations.
But Santos said he feels up to the challenge at middle linebacker, and Els believes he’s as capable playing in the box as roaming in space on the outside.
“He gives us a really quick MIKE linebacker,” Els said. “A guy that can find the seam, find the gap he’s supposed to be in, and run through it and maybe go make a play. So that’s good. He needs to work a little bit more on his coverage stuff, but that’ll come.”
Santos, a 6-foot, 225-pounder from Spring, Texas, started to see more playing time in the latter half of his redshirt freshman season, and finished with 24 total tackles. He chalked up 10 of those when he made his lone start against Michigan.
Santos said he got frustrated with himself along the way, but his advice to the younger linebackers is to not get down but still be their own toughest critic. Santos repeated head coach Bo Pelini’s oft-uttered phrase that it’s a process.
Eventually, he said, he came on as last season progressed — and especially through December — as he got a better grasp of the defense.
“It got so I understood alignments and why we’re doing certain things,” Santos said. “It all kind of made sense to me at the end of the day.”
Santos said Compton told him after the Capital One Bowl that “it’s all up to you now.” Compton said it was time to go win a Big Ten championship. Do it for the Huskers who didn’t get that ring.
Santos is flattered to maybe follow him, but Els said it also comes with a load of responsibility that Santos never had to carry before.
“Now he’s not looking around making sure he’s right, he’s got to be the one that is right,” Els said. “He and Trevor Roach have become the two that really have taken on a leadership role in that (linebacker) room, because those two do have the most experience and they’re the oldest.”
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