CHICAGO — Aaron Williams knows Chris Weber talks in his sleep. That’s a tidbit he can share with authority after the defenders shared a hotel room during Big Ten media days last week.
Williams, a junior safety from Atlanta, often saw Weber’s back as the former walk-on from Elkhorn operated at linebacker. But now — after a few days together in Chicago — he’s convinced it’s what’s inside Weber’s helmet that will make the biggest difference as the Huskers continue to learn defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense.
“Chris is probably one of the smartest people on the team, probably one of the smartest people I’ve met in my age group right now,” Williams said. “He’s going to be a doctor, first of all, and he has a 3.9 GPA. That speaks a lot about him. He’s very detailed. He’s very serious about his work. Chris, he’s going to bring those aspects to the team.”
Nebraska fans also are about to refamiliarize with the 6-foot-3, 240-pound fifth-year senior who could play a major role at inside linebacker this fall. Though he’s started four career games, he has appeared in 36 while making 72 tackles.
With that much experience, it’s easy to see why teammates and coaches anticipate a productive year for the 22-year-old alongside Dedrick Young. In Weber’s four starts in 2015 — he earned the chance after Josh Banderas went down with an injury — he recovered a fumble in his first outing against South Alabama, then logged a team-best 12 stops against Southern Mississippi. He added 17 tackles against Illinois then seven more against Wisconsin before an injury slowed his progress.
Weber finished with 17 tackles last year as the backup to the now-graduated Banderas. Then fortune smiled when Diaco came aboard in the winter. The new coordinator’s four-linebacker formation meant more opportunity for guys with a penchant for knowing when and how to stuff a run or drop into coverage.
“I think that this has been a great thing for Chris Weber,” coach Mike Riley said. “He’s a really good fit into what we’re doing now. He’s physically a good fit, mentally a good fit. In making a tough transition, we’ll need smart guys like Chris to be in there kind of leading the way.”
So what gives Weber a reputation of being so intelligent? Point to the full-ride academic scholarship to Nebraska, which made his decision to turn down football offers from the likes of South Dakota State, North Dakota and Drake “a no-brainer.” Look at the nutrition science major’s three A-minuses — in organic chemistry, Honors Calculus II and biology — and how they’ve been the low points of his 3.95 GPA.
On the field, Weber knows this might be it for football. All the more reason for the study sessions to learn new terminology and assignments in the 3-4. Then he can help tutor others.
“As a native Nebraskan, it’s a dream come true to wear the ‘N’ on my helmet,” Weber said. “It’s all you can ask for as a Nebraska kid. And for me, you’re going into your senior year, you don’t know what the future holds as far as football, so I’m going to put everything I got for this game and for this team, lay it on the line.
“I want to be a leader of this defense. I want to lead with how I come to work each day, lead by example, show the younger guys the culture we’ve installed here with Coach Riley. And then make plays.”
Back in Nebraska, Elkhorn coach Mark Wortman smiles when he hears updates about his former A student in AP U.S. History who starred as a tight end and linebacker on Friday nights. The kid was always in the right place, and it was more than just head knowledge.
A Class B quarterfinal at York still stands out to Wortman. With the Antlers on defense clinging to a three-point lead late, York called a run on fourth-and-2. Weber brought down the rusher on his own after one yard to clinch the win.
“He’s probably not going to be the biggest linebacker, but he has a sense,” Wortman said. “And with the strength that he does have, he ends up in the right place at the right time. You can be strong and fast and not do that, and he’s strong and fast and can do that. So it ends up being a pretty special deal.”
Wortman has coached other quality Huskers — recent examples include linebacker Trevor Roach, lineman Spencer Long, tight end Jake Long and running back Graham Nabity. Weber’s college success still resonates with the Elkhorn program as much as any, the coach said, because of his character.
The message to younger players: You can be at the top of your game while still being a five-star person and student.
“You don’t have to be on the edge to be a champion,” Wortman said. “He was a role model and a great leader. I’m expecting him to be a leader (at Nebraska), too. He has been a leader on and off the field. Coaches talk about how smart he is and how coachable he is. I said, ‘That’s nothing new.’ ”
As Weber answered questions for an hour last Tuesday in Chicago, he often referred to how “blessed” he is to be in a position to make a difference this fall. But his ascension wasn’t nearly as passive as that term implies. He said he never felt like an underdog even as a walk-on his first three years. He belonged, and he wanted more responsibility after getting a taste of action on special teams in 2014.
His best season in 2015 began with a challenge when he pulled a hamstring in the second workout and missed fall camp. He was pressed into action for the season’s second game against South Alabama and performed well — six tackles — in his first start despite not having practiced in pads to that point.
Now with the chance to be a factor in a major defensive transition, Weber said he plans to approach the situation the only way he knows how.
“I haven’t had to change the way I work,” Weber said. “I feel like I give everything I got to what I’m doing — school, football, life. I’m one of those guys who’s going to give everything he has to it. So I haven’t changed that. But I’m just determined to make an impact and be a leader of this defense.”
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