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Think about the greatest middle/inside linebackers. Who comes to mind first?

Maybe it's Dick Butkus. Or Jack Lambert. Or Willie Lanier. Or Mike Singletary. Or, of more recent vintage, Patrick Willis.

David Santos has a couple names for you: Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher.

"Mean, tough guys like that, you know what I mean?" Santos said.

Is Santos that guy?

"I can be that guy on occasion," he said with a grin.

Nebraska football coaches hope those occasions are numerous, because Santos is the leading candidate to take over in the middle for the departed Will Compton. The 6-foot, 225-pound sophomore made 24 tackles as a backup weakside linebacker last season, appearing in 13 games and starting one.

He experienced the typical highs and lows of a freshman. He did his best to learn a defensive system that is "pretty complicated," he said. With time, and mind-numbing repetition, he has gained better understanding.

Nebraska coaches expect Santos to not only know his assignments, but also where to position teammates.

Middle linebackers take control. They have to survey the scene and make decisions accordingly. They have to trust their eyes.

Is Santos that guy?

"I think I'm starting to be more of that guy," he said. "I think I'm taking more on in that role, being more vocal. I don't have a problem with it anymore. You set standards for yourself, you set standards as a unit. I'm the most experienced guy in the (linebackers' meeting) room. If not me, then who else?"

Good question. Nebraska can mix and match linebackers. It seems a versatile group. But Santos' experience, coupled with his athletic ability and instincts, makes him a logical choice in the middle.

If Nebraska were to start the season this week, the linebackers likely would be Santos, flanked by junior Zaire Anderson at the weakside spot and redshirt freshman Thomas Brown at BUCK -- though, make no mistake, the depth chart is fluid. Anderson appeared in three games last season before needing major knee surgery. Brown was a scout-team star.

Who else besides Santos in the middle? Perhaps junior walk-on Trevor Roach of Elkhorn, who has appeared in 10 games in his career and has a dozen tackles. Santos and Roach are the veterans among Husker linebackers, at least in terms of experience.

"I don't feel like a veteran, but I feel experienced in the game," Santos said.

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It helps that he played inside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment at Klein Collins High in Spring, Texas, near Houston. He made most of the calls, not to mention tackles. He accumulated 136 stops as a senior in 2010 for a team that finished 11-2.

Klein Collins coach Drew Svoboda said Santos' instincts set him apart. Santos could identify an offense's intentions in a split-second, react quickly, and make the play.

Even so, most of the Big 12 programs -- including all of the Texas schools -- passed on Santos. He apparently was too small.

"They wanted a 6-2, 225-pound linebacker," Svoboda said.

Perhaps someone in the mold of Butkus (6-3, 245). Or Lambert (6-4, 220). Or Lanier (6-1, 245). Or Lewis (6-1, 240). Or Urlacher (6-4, 260). Or even Barrett Ruud, who was 6-2, 240 as a sophomore at Nebraska in 2002.

Of course, Singletary was "only" 6-foot and 230 pounds as a Chicago Bears rookie in 1981.

Like Singletary, Santos doesn't necessarily fit the prototype of a traditional middle linebacker. Yet he feels comfortable. He says he's "manhandled a couple guys up front."

"You love to have that leadership, that toughness, that guy everybody pictures -- the Dick Butkus, the Jack Lambert -- sitting in the middle of your defense," said Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis. "But football's evolved and changed a little. You still want those tough guys and vocal leaders.

"But you also have to have guys who can run. David can run. He's athletic. He's more in the mold of Lavonte David."

Papuchis stops himself. Hold the phone. He isn't implying Santos is on the same level as David, the former Husker weakside backer who ranks fourth among the school's career tackles leaders despite spending only two seasons (2010-11) in the program.

Santos does possess a few of the 6-1, 225-pound David's qualities.

"(Santos) can get off blocks, get around blocks," Papuchis said. "He's fast. He can run things down. That was something we were missing a year ago and maybe we have in David now.

"He's athletic, he's veteran, and he's physical at the point of attack."

In Santos' lone start last season, against Michigan, he made 10 tackles. He got his coaches' attention by running down Kain Colter from behind in the Northwestern game. He forced the controversial fourth-quarter fumble against Penn State.

"I just want to keep progressing," Santos said. "Last season was like the first chapter of what I want to actually happen. What I'm looking forward to now is making all the plays."

Yeah, being that guy.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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