“There are no great men, only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet.” – William F. Halsey
The word “great” gets thrown around a lot now. What does it mean though? If I were to say that Lavonte David was the greatest linebacker to ever attend the University of Nebraska would you agree?
David did set the single-season tackling record as a junior with 152 tackles, and he finished his career at Nebraska with 285 in his two years. The career total tackle leader is Barrett Ruud at 432. While there is a gap of about a season’s worth of tackles that separate Ruud and David, you have to consider David’s path to Nebraska. He was a junior college transfer from Fort Scott (Kans.) Community College, with three years to play two.
At 285 career tackles, in just two years of play, David leaves Nebraska as the No. 4 tackler all-time, narrowly missing out on third (Mike Brown, 287). But what made David great isn’t just what he did on the field at Nebraska, but the fact that the linebacker coach at the time wasn’t sold on bringing in a junior college linebacker that year.
Junior college recruits typically are looked at in one of two ways during the evaluation process: The player either has to meet an immediate need, or must be so good that you have to consider him. David wasn’t necessarily the first option for Nebraska. In fact, he could have still had a year of eligibility at the end of this season.
“He quite possibly could have redshirted,” former linebackers coach Mike Ekeler said. “It’s so difficult for a player to come in during the summer and pick up the whole system and play. Usually when you have a junior college player, you are banking on getting one year to learn and then play at a higher level.
“It takes time for them to learn the system and for the game to slow down a little bit for them. In the end, you are really hoping to get one good year out of them. And for that guy to come out and do what he did - he really should have won the Butkus Award his junior year, in my opinion.”
What David did as a junior was nothing short of astounding. Consider that when he came to Lincoln in the summer, not the spring, he was not being fast-tracked into the lineup. Then, a series of injuries hit. Sean Fisher was lost for the season with a broken leg, and Will Compton hurt his ankle severely enough to miss a good part of the season.
Ekeler said that there is a bit of a goal that you hope junior college transfers can attain at some point. Realistically, though, that goal isn’t short-term. David went straight from having the luxury of having a year to learn, a year to grow, to being a key cog in for a Bo Pelini- coached defense.
“We were in two-a-days and it was before Will Compton and Sean Fisher got hurt two years ago,” said Ekeler. “They are out there coaching David up during two-a-days, and I remember one practice which I would call a ‘coming out’ for him.
“We were breaking down at the end of practice, and David says ‘Hey coach, I have something to say. Fish and Will, I just want to thank the two of you for everything you are doing for me’. It came straight from the heart. He’s a team player and a great person.”
On the field, what makes a linebacker great under Pelini isn’t all that different from what made a linebacker great 15 years ago under Tom Osborne. Ask Julius Jackson, who played linebacker at Nebraska from 1995-1999.
“I think it’s speed and agility that Coach Osborne and Coach McBride were looking for,” Jackson said. “That was the core of what they were looking for when I played, and it’s stayed that way over time.
“David definitely looks the part. He would have fit the scheme that Charlie McBride would have looked for on defense. He’s fast, he has an eye for the ball and he’s aggressive.”
Athleticism is one thing, but the linebacker position is different. You either have this ability to read and react, or you are so instinctual that you almost look anticipatory. Credit David for being a student of the game and having a great understanding of what is going on, not just at his position, but all over the field.
“You could see that he was a student of the game,” Jackson continued. “He knew his responsibility and he knew the others’ around him responsibilities.”
Ekeler said it was more than that. When you looked at David on paper you saw 6-1 and 225-pounds. What you didn’t see was the passion and the desire that David has for the game. Nebraska had an incredible dependency on David the past two years from his WILL linebacker spot. Rarely did he ever leave the field based on the scheme or the play, and you never saw him limp off and not come back.
“What makes him great is his love for the game and the natural feel for the game,” said Ekeler. “He’s born to play the game of football. He’s a play-making machine. “I have heard the scouts say that they want their guys at 235 or 240 pounds, and they question his durability. David didn’t miss one play, not one single play, in two years. He never left the field.”
When you talk about the greatest of all time, you tend to want to qualify certain things: era, prototypical, athleticism, type of defense, etc. People forget that Ekeler saw great Nebraska linebackers. He was born in David City, Neb., graduated from Blair High School and played against Nebraska from 1991 to 1994 while at Kansas State.
“Personally, I don’t know of a guy that had a better two-year period at Nebraska playing linebacker than he did,” said Ekeler. “Barrett Ruud had a four-year period like that and was consistent for four years, but not at the [same] pace as David.
“No one has. Not Terrell Farley or Demorrio Williams, but they were both great, comparable linebackers to David. They had great two-year careers at Nebraska, but not like that.”
Jackson agrees. He might not put David at the top of the list, but he hadn’t given much thought to what the list looked like before I called him. He rattled off the greats, including Ruud, Jerry Murtaugh, Marc Munford, Ed Stewart, Farley and Williams. Still, knowing all that came before his days as a Nebraska linebacker, all that were there while he was in Lincoln and all that came after he left, he says David is worthy of consideration as the best of all time.
“I think that he needs to be in the discussion,” Jackson agreed. “That’s a big title to have. With all of the players that we have had come through there, he’s definitely in the mix.
“I think that he was a great athlete, always around the ball and just had an eye for the ball. He played into the system that the coaches at Nebraska wanted to run.”
Ekeler isn’t sure whether he ever will see another leader like David. He wasn’t like Carlos Polk was, a “rah-rah” vocal leader. He is the polar opposite. While Polk talked the game and went out on the field to back it up, David just let what he was doing on the field do the talking.
David was always his biggest critic, too. He may not have screwed up and forgotten his responsibility or blown a play, but he knew that he could have done better at times. While Pelini has been known to get a little emotional at times during the game while talking to players, there wasn’t a need to address David.
“He’s not a vocal guy. It’s just not his personality,” said Ekeler. “And still he’s one of the best leaders that I have ever been around. He led by sheer example. And when something could have been better, I never saw Bo go over and yell at him. You didn’t have to say a word to him if he made a mistake. He was way harder on himself than you could ever be.”
Jackson says to give credit where credit is due. He’s not sure that people really understand the challenges of learning a defense and executing. There is a time that must be carved out for development, both mental and physical.
“Like every other player, out of high school or junior college, it’s about getting your time on the field and showing your talents and what you can do,” said Jackson. “With any player, you have to develop. It doesn’t matter. You need that time to develop, get on the field and show what you can do.
“Coming in from a junior college and only having two years to develop, get on the field and make those plays, it’s a tribute to him what he was able to accomplish. Few could have done what he was able to do in such a short time.”
David’s football intelligence was a key quality, in Ekeler’s opinion. While Ekeler wasn’t sold on taking a junior college linebacker at first, he became convinced during David’s official visit. Ek wanted to know what David knew about the game and specifically about defense. David was grilled not only by Ek, but later by Pelini. Afterward, they knew they had their guy.
“On his official visit we sat down and talked for about an hour, just talked ball. I was quizzing him about what we were going over and I was just astounded by what the guy knew.
“Right from my office we walked right into Bo’s office, and I said, ‘Bo, you’ve got to see this.’ I start quizzing him again and he’s rattling it off, and I said to Bo, ‘You ask him a question.’ So Bo started asking him questions.
“When Bo got done and Lavonte left his office, Bo looked at me and said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s our guy.’ It was one of the craziest things. He can just play ball. He just gets it.”
The time of Lavonte David in Lincoln has quietly and sadly come to an end. If there was ever a player that I wanted to come back for just one more year, it’s David. Personally, I feel short- changed. I’m glad I saw his two years, but I wish there was more. For a moment, two years of moments really, I saw the best the position ever had to offer in Lincoln.