The expectations for senior linebacker Lavonte David coming into the season were as lofty as any defensive player in the Big Ten Conference. Through six games, Nebraska's coaches say he's lived up to every bit of the hype and then some.
While it was supposed to be David, senior defensive tackle Jared Crick and senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard as the Huskers' "Big Three" on defense, David has been the only one play in every game this season.
Not only has he been able to stay healthy, he's playing as well as anyone could have expected. His 58 tackles are far and away the most on the team, and he also leads NU with six tackles for loss and is second with two sacks.
The Miami, Fla., native's 9.7 tackles per game are tied for second in the Big Ten, which is fitting considering the worries some had about whether David would be durable enough to take on the big, bruising offenses of the conference.
Blessed with the speed of a defensive back, head coach Bo Pelini said David can still bang with anyone with his solid 220-pound frame.
"He plays big, plays bigger than maybe people see him," Pelini said. "I don't think it's an issue. I know the NFL guys, he's not a prototype inside 3-4 linebacker, but you talk to the NFL scouts and they say he's a football player. Guys like him, you need him on your team. He makes your team better, no matter what. I said last night when we were talking a little bit about it, I don't care if he's 5-6. Somebody who plays football the way he does is a valuable piece of a puzzle."
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini echoed his brother's statements when asked whether he had any concerns about David's size compared to the other linebackers around the Big Ten. Carl said the days of the bulky, run-stuffing Big Ten linebackers were becoming a thing of the past, as players in David's mold were becoming more and more common.
Carl also said he never worried about how David would fare against Big Ten offenses, as he saw more than enough evidence that David could hold his own last year when he had to take on pulling offensive guards who out-weighed him by nearly 100 pounds.
"The thing about Lavonte that I think people lose sight of is he's 220 pounds," Carl said. "He can run like a safety, but at the point of attack, he's as physical as anybody we have. He'll take on a 240-pound fullback and not back down. He's not just a speed guy. He's a physical football player."
As good as David's numbers have been so far, he's averaging about one less tackle per game than he did during his breakout 152-tackle season last year. However, it looks as if he might only be just beginning to heat up.
He racked up 13 tackles and came up with the play of the season with his strip and fumble recovery against Ohio State, and he had two sacks along with seven stops the week before against Wisconsin.
With 210 career tackles in just a season and a half as a Husker, David is just 38 stops shy of breaking into the school's top-10 all-time tackle leaders list. He's also only 11 tackles away from passing Demorrio Williams' record for the most stops ever by a two-year player at Nebraska.
At the rate he's been going, David should go down as one of the best defensive players ever to suit up at NU, and it won't matter what conference he played in.
"Lavonte's played well all year," Carl said. "He's played like an All-American all year. I don't know if it's been any different the last couple weeks. Maybe statistics say so, but statistics for an individual player don't always mean anything
I've been especially happy with him every game. I have been. I haven't had one critique of him. He's played really well all year."
- Robin Washut
Jean-Baptiste to make starting debut at cornerback
After coming up with one of the biggest plays of the game two weeks ago against Ohio State, sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste became an instant factor in Nebraska's secondary.
In fact, he's already earned himself a starting job.
Despite having only moved to the position from wide receiver after the Washington game, Jean-Baptiste will make his starting debut at cornerback opposite Dennard when the Huskers take on Minnesota on Saturday.
Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond said the Miami, Fla., native's performance against Ohio State and his play the past two weeks in practice made the coaching staff comfortable enough to give a shot in the spotlight.
"This is going to be a test for him this week," Raymond said. "He's going to be out there the whole time
At the beginning he'll be out there, and we'll just see how it goes from there
He did some good things in practice. You've just got to go with it. It's not that he's on a short string, but we've just got to be able to make sure he's ready to be able to compete."
Raymond said Jean-Baptiste's 6-3, 220-pound frame fits exactly what Nebraska wants at cornerback.
"His athleticism, being a big guy, and being able to put his body on receivers, because he is a big body," Raymond said. "It's hard for receivers to get around big-bodied guys. That's why you like bigger guys out there."
In particular, he said Jean-Baptiste's long arms and ability to get his hands on passes were things you just couldn't coach.
"Length," Raymond said. "He's got something everybody else don't have. Like Prince is a big corner, you know what I'm saying? It's just nice sized guys who get out there and can run can have a mentality out there."
Physically, Jean-Baptiste has all the tools to be an impact cornerback in the Big Ten. As far as how he's progressed at the position mentally, Raymond said he was doing well in spite of his limited experience.
"He's coming along," Raymond said. "He's got a long way to go mentally just playing the position and having that mentality, having that bulldog mentality when you're on receivers. That's the last thing. You're playing them to the fullest, like there's no tomorrow."
- Robin Washut
Slowing down Gray will be key
Minnesota's offense on Saturday will start and stop with the play of MarQueis Gray at quarterback.
The 6-foot-4, 230 pound Gray is the Gophers leading rusher and passer through six games and defensive line coach John Papuchis knows his guys will have their work cut out for them on Saturday trying to slow him down.
"That's going to be a key in this football game," Papuchis said. "We can't allow (Gray) to ad-lib and create things on his own. He's a very talented player, he's hard to tackle, he's a physical guy and he's a good athlete that can also throw the ball. He's a good player."
Earlier this season mobile quarterbacks like Washington's Keith Price and Ohio State's Braxton Miller have posed problems for the Huskers on defense.
Junior defensive end Cameron Meredith said NU must play with more disciplined this week against Gray.
"We have a game plan to adjust to (Gray's) mobility," Meredith said. "It just comes down to effort. The past few time we faced mobile quarterbacks I think we kind of lost that. I think effort is going to be the key.
"A lot of the design of their offense has to do with him running the ball. As far as passing if nothing is open he's looking to scramble. We have to be aware of his speed and agility."
- Sean Callahan
Hardrick thrives in leadership role
One player that has really stepped into a leadership role this season for Nebraska has been senior offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick.
The junior college transfer from Mississippi said becoming a vocal leader is something he's becoming more and more comfortable with each day.
"At first I wasn't used to being a vocal leader, but I see that when I say things the team listens to me and they respect me,"Hardrick said. "Then Coach (John) Garrison said 'start saying things that the team can hear and that the team can hear so they can feed off of it.'
"It's just like with Rex (Burkhead). He hardly talks, but if he says something everybody is going to listen because they respect him. The big thing I want to get across is we need everybody, even the redshirts. We need everybody right now to win it and I'm just trying to get that message across and it's starting to stick."
When Hardrick thinks back about picking Nebraska in December of 2009 after being a commitment to LSU, he calls it a life changing decision.
"I just love my team," Hardrcik said. "I just love them. I think about it every day if I would've went to LSU. If I would've went to LSU I would've never played with Lavonte (David), Stanley (Jean-Baptiste) and (Brandon Kinnie).
"It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made in my life."
- Sean Callahan
Heard eager to be back in the mix
Nebraska's offensive backfield took an unexpected hit just prior to the Wyoming game when freshman running back Braylon Heard was a late scratch due to an infection in his leg.
Since then, Heard has been forced to watch the past three games from the sidelines. As frustrating as the injury has been for the Youngstown, Ohio, native, the Huskers have certainly missed his presence as well.
Despite playing in only three of NU's six games this season, Heard still ranks as the team's third-leading rusher (79 yards on 17 carries) behind running back Rex Burkhead and quarter back Taylor Martinez.
Needless to say, getting him back in the mix this week has been a welcomed addition for the rest of the offense.
"He's another fast running back back there," Beck said. "I've liked the way he's been practicing and playing, even up until his infection. I'm looking forward to getting him back and certainly getting the chance to get him on the field."
After having to sit out all of last season while some academic issues with worked out, Heard obviously didn't enjoy spending three games of his freshman season as merely a spectator.
"It was really hard just watching and knowing you can't do anything," Heard said.
Not being able to play against Ohio State, the team he grew up watching, was an especially tough pill to swallow.
"I know a lot of guys on that team from my home state, so it was rough," Heard said. "It was rough."
- Robin Washut
***Raymond also confirmed Justin Blatchford and Lance Thorell would be the primary nickel backs in NU's nickel defense on Saturday. He said their ability to play the run was a big part in them getting the nod. Raymond also said Ciante Evans would work in at nickel as well, further indicating he could be used in passing downs.
"When we are in base we'll have Blatchford and Thorell in a peso role, since Minnesota does all that spreading out," junior linebacker Will Compton said. "They'll do some things that we faced a lot of last year. In nickel, it will be them and Ciante (Evans) repping in there."
***Co-offensive line coach John Garrison said freshman tackle Tyler Moore hit somewhat of a plateau in his development a few weeks ago, which has been a big reason why he hasn't seen the field much at all the past two games. Garrison said it's not that Moore is playing poorly, but he needed to take the next step in his development as a player. With the start of Big Ten play, Garrison said the line needed Moore to step up, as he was no longer being given the benefit of being a true freshman.
***Garrison said Nebraska's offensive line has thrived in its man blocking scheme, but it's not as if the unit has made a complete shift from zone blocking to man. He said the Huskers would continue to use both schemes throughout the season depending on what defenses were doing each game. This week, Garrison said Minnesota uses a lot of post-snap movement and blitzes to confuse offensive lines, so there's a good chance NU will go back to more of a zone scheme this week.
***Former Husker great Prince Amukamara was in attendance for Wednesday's practice, as his New York Giants have a bye week this week. Amukamara has yet to play in his first NFL game because of a foot injury he suffered in training camp, but there's a chance he'll be ready to make his debut when the Giants return to action in two weeks.
***Linebackers coach Ross Els gave an update as to who's been working as Nebraska's No. 2 linebackers. He said Mathew May is the No. 2 Will and Trevor Roach is the No. 2 Mike. However, Els said the Buck spot was still up in the air, as Sean Fisher, Alonzo Whaley and Eric Martin have all been competing for the starting spot. He said who plays the most would likely depend on what Minnesota does on Saturday.
***Raymond said Corey Cooper has been working at both safety and cornerback. After starting at corner against Wyoming, Cooper has not seen the field on defense the past two games.
"He's doing both," Raymond said. "We're trying to teach him how to do both, and hopefully that will help in him in the long run."
***Offensive line coach Barney Cotton said NU will continue to do a mixture of zone blocking and man blocking this season.
"Some of the plays we are running are old school back in the day Nebraska stuff and they involve some man blocking," Cotton said. "I think in order to be a decent offense we have to be able to hang our hat on more than zone blocking, which is going to include gap and man blocking schemes."
***Cotton said that his son Jake Cotton could be back as early as this spring, but everything depends on how he rehabs from his knee surgery.
"He had a pretty extensive deal," Barney Cotton said. "You just have to wait and see. It could be six months. More than six months would put us into spring football, so we'll see."
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