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With apologies to the greatest linebackers in Nebraska's storied history, the Huskers' fifth-year head football coach was looking for recruits that fit a certain mold ... a new model with high demands and skill sets befitting a Bo Pelini designer defense. Quite simply, Pelini and Ross Els, his linebacker coach and new recruiting coordinator, were looking for the second coming of Lavonte David with these five minimum adult daily requirements:
1) Someone who can run so fast and so instinctively that he sticks out like a sore thumb on every video that flashes on every screen.
2) A linebacker that can diagnose what's unfolding in front of him at the same time he's already made the right first step to get where he needs to be.
3) A guy who looks like he has jet propulsion in his cleats and will only get more acceleration when James Dobson gets him in the weight room.
4) An athlete who's as physical as he is fast, so he has no problem taking on blocks and then systematically sheds those blocks.
5) A man's man with a fighter pilot mindset and somehow gets to the ball no matter how much congestion he sees through the front windshield of his helmet.
And just exactly what mold are we talking about here? Sorry Tom Novak (1940s), Marc Munford (1980s) and Ed Stewart (1990s). You may be the linebackers NU fans voted onto Nebraska's All-Century team, but you are not the current model. Neither are Barrett Ruud or Jerry Murtaugh, whose tackle meters moved faster than taxi meters.
Lavonte David: Huskers' New Mold for Linebackers
Every Nebraska fan knows the mold that Pelini, Els and the rest of the Husker staff endorsed for their 2012 prototype linebacker ... none other than David. The junior college transfer grasped Pelini's defense so quickly, it boggled the minds of his coaches. That's why Lavonte is now the model that mixes traditional qualities with new requirements and is now viewed at Nebraska the way Alabama views Derrick Thomas, Baylor views Mike Singletary, North Carolina views Lawrence Taylor and Illinois views Dick Butkus. In my opinion, Lavonte David is the standard by which all future Nebraska linebackers will be measured.
Granted, Nebraska only had David for two years, so there will be many who will disagree with such lofty status. But I'm not talking about indelible niches in Husker history. I'm talking only about Nebraska's new mold for recruiting ... the kind of athlete Nebraska so desperately needs upon which to base the principles and the nuances of Pelini's overall defensive philosophy.
And here's the good news. Even though there's no way to know for sure if Nebraska landed such a linebacker in this recruiting class until live bullets start flying next fall, let's just say Pelini and Els think they see enough physical and emotional ammunition inside their four latest linebacker recruits that David's departure may be filled quicker than most can imagine.
New recruits Jared Afalava and Zaire Anderson are considered outside linebackers, and Thomas Brown and Michael Rose are envisioned as inside linebackers, but Pelini and Els aren't ready to categorize any of them. Both coaches, in fact, are determined to keep all options open until they see how well they understand the playbook, how quickly they improve their bursts of speed in strength and conditioning and how tough they are when they have to stop a third-and-one.
"Everybody is going to compare himself to Lavonte David, but that's the type of linebacker we want," Els said. "We want a guy who can get to the ball in tough situations. We want a guy who can get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. When we watch film, we're looking for that flash going across the screen wearing jersey number whatever ... whoever that is ... just somebody that's outrunning everybody to the football and always seems to find a way to get there before anyone else."
Shedding Blocks, Crisp Tackling Create Separation
Els knows how tough those kinds of players are to block. He also knows every other program in the country is looking for the same David-like qualities. "Everybody at the Division 1 level wants a guy who can take on blocks, tackle well and compete hard," Els said. "It's that extra level of ability to get to the ball that creates the separation between real difference-makers and game-changers."
Insisting he's not just being politically correct, Els believes all four linebacker recruits have the potential to elevate to David's level.
"They're all pretty even to be honest with you," he said. "When I look at all the linebackers other major schools were recruiting, I can't say that anyone of these guys were any harder to get than just about anyone else out there. I really do think that all four of these guys are pretty even across the board. I can't pick one that's above the others. I wish I could because that would make it easier for me to plug guys into positions. I told all four that it will be wide-open competition, and we won't know if they're middle, weak side or strong side until they get here and prove what they can do.
"It's going to be interesting," Els said. "They all know there's an opportunity to play early because of our lack of depth at linebacker, so they're all extremely fired up, and it's my job to get 'em straight on the mental side by the time they get there. Zaire will be here in May and the other three - Jared, Thomas and Michael - will be here in June. Jared has the biggest frame. Michael is probably the thickest. Zaire comes in with the most experience and Thomas has the same strengths as all three of them. All four really are similar-type players. They run extremely well. They flash in front of you on film. They're quick, and they're aggressive. They fit the mold we're looking for."
Who knows which one's the fastest? Which diagnoses an unfolding play the quickest? Who will adjust to the differences in physicality between Friday nights and Saturdays and then, maybe someday, on Sundays? Who will get where he needs to be, no matter what it takes and who's in front of him? Let's hope that answer is plural rather than singular because it would make all Husker Blackshirts better, including the incumbents who will be a year older, wiser, stronger, faster, tougher and more confident themselves.
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