Sophomores are rarely called veterans, and sophomores are rarely in a position to call those around them “the younger guys." But this is the reality of the Husker defense in 2013.
And David Santos – he, the veteran sophomore – seems just fine in facing that reality.
As fall camp began for the Huskers on Monday night – the first of 24 practices over a span of 20 days before game week – it’d be an easy enough thing for Nebraska defenders to use their youth as a crutch.
Santos, it seems, is not interested in grabbing hold of that excuse.
"It's just realizing that you have to grow up and you have to fill those roles," he said last week. "It doesn't matter how young we are, really. We're all here for the same reason. We have to hold ourselves accountable to what we're here to do, and that's win games and be the best we can be."
A year ago at this time, Nebraska’s middle linebacker was Will Compton, a senior who had been starting college games since 2009, a player Bo Pelini called “the undisputed leader of the defense” heading into last season.
Now, the middle linebacker role belongs to Santos, who would be described as a young player most years.
Not this one. Not with this Husker D.
When you’ve played in 13 games and even started against Michigan, you're an old guy in the Husker linebacker room.
Santos knows that well. He also knows the popular belief of some fans and media that Nebraska’s offense might have to carry the young defense as it learns its way during the early portion of this season.
“I just see it as a challenge,” Santos said of that talk. “No one wants to be the little brother. That’s pretty much what they’re making us, like they’re taking care of us. And we’re like, ‘Nah, this is the Blackshirts.’
“We want to prove that we deserve the recognition the offense gets as well, that we’re just as hard-working as them. We don’t plan on sitting back and letting the offense do all the work.”
Quiet by nature, Santos comes off low-key in interviews. But he knows he must raise his voice to help the defense meet those aspirations.
“I’m a pretty calm guy, especially in the meeting room. I don’t like to be rowdy. I like to focus in and lock into what needs to be done,” he said. “But on the field, it’s a whole different situation. It’s game time. It’s going to be loud. I've got to be loud.”
Santos heard in the spring from senior defensive back Ciante Evans, who told the linebacker during one of the early practices he needed to increase the volume while calling plays.
Evans liked Santos’ response to that critique. But you can be sure the senior captain is going to keep pushing the linebacker to step out of his comfort zone.
"I'm still in his ear right now," Evans said. "I like to give him a hard time because I want to let him know that I need him. I don't care how young you are. You have to step up and I need you right now, because this is my senior season. And I think he knows that, that he needs to step up to the plate and be a playmaker for us."
The 6-foot, 225-pound Santos came out of high school in Klein, Texas, as one of the top 40 overall players in the talent-rich state, according to Rivals.com.
He redshirted in 2011 and posted 24 tackles, three for loss, last season.
There were times, such as the 23-9 win against Michigan, when Santos showed his potential. He had a season-high 10 tackles, earning Big Ten freshman of the week honors.
And it was Santos who made a hit at the goal line against Penn State, forcing a fourth-quarter fumble (controversial as the call may have been) that was perhaps the most pivotal play in the Huskers' win.
Playing at the WILL linebacker spot last year, Santos said he was “overexcited” at times early in the season.
“I got more comfortable as the season went on, but never too comfortable.”
Now is no time to get comfortable, either.
While Santos and Zaire Anderson might be considered favorites now to be the two linebackers who see the most action, there are plenty of young, hungry players around them.
Michael Rose, Jared Afalava, Courtney Love and Josh Banderas are all freshmen looking to make a splash.
Youth here, there and everywhere. If that worries some fans, Santos can’t help but be excited about the possibilities as those linebackers gain experience.
“Age, at this point, I kind of don’t see them as young guys,” Santos said. “I kind of see them as brothers, and guys I need to bring along.”