LINCOLN — At this early point in preseason practice, Nebraska's not conveying the impression that it will suffer without the three veteran linebackers it relied on last season.
What departed veterans Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher had in experience and football acumen (accumulated in more than 60 combined collegiate starts), the Huskers are hoping their replacements can make up for with instincts and athleticism. It's the same for almost every spot on a defense that lost eight starters, but no battles for playing time would seem more wide open than the ones involving linebackers.
“There are a number of guys in that group that are playing multiple spots,” coach Bo Pelini said Tuesday after Nebraska's second practice of the month. “You're always going to see different combinations. We're looking for those best combinations.”
The Huskers need three linebackers for their base defense. Two spots are open in the nickel formation (which uses five defensive backs). They haven't even started practicing the dime alignment, which needs one versatile linebacker to match up with running backs and quickly fill running lanes.
Those jobs could be filled by the same applicants. Or maybe, as Pelini indicated Tuesday, the Huskers will end up having six different linebackers to call on, depending on the desired lineup.
By the end of last season, Whaley and Fisher were on the field against pro-style offenses along with Compton, who rarely left the field. Sophomore David Santos substituted in when opponents went with three wide receivers. Another senior last season, Justin Blatchford, often entered specifically to match up with tight ends.
“When we train a guy in one spot, moving him to another spot isn't real difficult,” Pelini said at Big Ten media days two weeks ago. “We're doing some different things with our linebackers. Our guys, it's going to be pretty easy for them, where they can play (any) spot.”
For now, Santos is being groomed as the team's middle linebacker. He actually admitted to finding a comfort zone toward the end of last season at Will linebacker (a player in NU's defense who typically aligns on the side opposite from the tight end).
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But Santos assumed that he'd be the most likely candidate to direct traffic, considering that his 12 games of experience last year amount to more action than the rest of the linebackers have combined.
“We needed depth at that position,” Santos said. Even more so now that junior Trevor Roach is out for the year with a foot injury.
Junior Zaire Anderson, who played three games before a season-ending injury in his first year at NU in 2012, is the projected starter at Will linebacker. And when the Huskers use their base three-linebacker formation, redshirt freshman Jared Afalava of South Jordan, Utah, is the favorite to join the first team at the Buck linebacker spot (most often lining up on the tight end side).
But freshman Courtney Love of Youngstown, Ohio, could play all three positions. So could true freshman Josh Banderas of Lincoln. Michael Rose fits well either at middle or on the weakside, though Pelini also said the redshirt freshman from Kansas City, Mo., plays with enough physicality to handle the challenges on the strongside.
Again, lots of possibilities.
“We finally have some young guys that are ready to come and take over the reins,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said at a speaking event last month. “I think all of those guys are tremendously talented. How it plays out, we'll see.”
The uncertainty has been beneficial lately, according to Santos. Players see a chance at contributing, so they're doing everything they can to earn a role.
They certainly don't want to make any excuses for themselves, Santos said.
“It doesn't matter how young we are, really. We're all here for the same reasons,” he said. “We have to hold ourselves accountable to what we came here to do, and that's win games and be the best that we can be.”