LINCOLN — When the Nebraska coaches told David Santos to enter the game midway through the first quarter Saturday, the junior linebacker wasn’t surprised.
He’d been preparing to get another chance. He just wasn’t sure when it would come.
The former starter had lost his first-team spot — but not his confidence or his competitive fire. Santos said he spent the last two weeks trying to figure out how to improve, which is exactly what the Husker staff told him to do.
“Stay in it and stay with it, and get back to what you do best,” Santos said of the message he received after the demotion. “That’s it. That’s what I had to do.”
Santos called his dad for a few encouraging words. He talked with ex-Husker linebacker Will Compton a couple times, too.
No one allowed Santos to make excuses. He didn’t want to anyway. He knew that the only way to earn more playing time started with him making significant improvements.
“(I) just put the attention on myself,” he said. “(Got) back to the basics.”
The work paid off for Santos on Saturday. South Dakota State scored touchdowns on its first two possessions and the NU coaching staff decided to make a change at middle linebacker.
Freshman Josh Banderas was pulled. Santos played the majority of snaps after that.
Santos wasn’t perfect. In fact, he missed a tackle on his first play, allowing a 15-yard run. Coach Bo Pelini called a timeout right after that and spoke specifically with Santos in the defensive huddle.
But Santos seemed to settle in a bit more after that.
It certainly helped that he came free on a blitz later in that possession and picked up his first career sack. Santos stomped on the turf with both feet in celebration after making the stop. He had six tackles on the afternoon.
“One thing about our guys is they know that if they get yanked — like he did after the first game — keep working hard because you’ll get another opportunity,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “David got his chance again.”
Papuchis said Santos did some “decent things.” Santos seemed relatively upbeat afterward, saying he played “pretty well.”
It was a much different vibe than the opener.
Three plays into that first game, Santos had to be helped off the field after he banged helmets with a Wyoming player.
Two drives later, a running back’s helmet rammed underneath Santos’ face mask and into his chin and mouth, chipping off the bottom half of his two front teeth. Santos said he spit out the broken fragments, and tried to stay poised by focusing on relaying the next call.
“I thought, ‘Should I tap out?” Santos said. “I (decided) to just keep playing.”
But he never quite looked like the same guy who last year contributed against Northwestern, recorded 10 tackles in a start against Michigan or forced a potential game-saving fumble against Penn State.
He saw progress Saturday, though there’s still plenty of work to do, according to Santos.
“You want to get back to where you were at,” he said. “It never stops. You want to keep improving. So I want to keep going forward with this.”