A college football coach has a lot on his mind.
"How do we prepare for our next opponent? How are the players doing in class? How can we shore up that B gap?"
And oh, yeah: "Who gets to play?"
It may seem like a simple decision: The best player at each position gets on the field. Determining who those players are is why these coaches make the big bucks. Once the game is over, the second-guessing from the fan base begins and the pressure builds.
Coaches need to get it right.
“When you look at the Nebraska football program, it’s bigger than any one individual or one coach,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “There are 150 guys on the team, a big coaching staff and millions of Husker fans who live and die with what goes on. My responsibility is to put the guys on the field that are prepared to play and they showed that during the week in practice.”
Maybe not. Take redshirt freshman linebacker David Santos, for example. He’s fast, he’s aggressive and he’s talented. He spent his redshirt year learning at the feet of Lavonte David, now a starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Santos' speed is what the Nebraska defense has been lacking in 2012.
So how come Santos isn’t getting consistent playing time?
“The young guys have to beat out one of the older guys,” Papuchis said. “It starts in practice. We evaluate every rep they take. At the end of the day our responsibility is to put the guys on field who give us the best chance to win. Everyone pretty much gets an equal opportunity, that’s the way it’s set up in the way we practice."
Papuchis pointed to senior defensive end Joseph Carter as someone who practiced well in the two weeks leading up to the Northwestern game and earned more playing time. Carter, a junior college transfer in his second season, finished with two tackles and a pass breakup.
Maybe Santos’ time is coming. He has played in six of the Huskers' seven games and totaled six tackles, but three came in Saturday’s come-from-behind win over Northwestern. One play stands out: Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter runs the read option to the left, nimbly sprinting down the line of scrimmage to the edge … until Santos comes roaring in and spills Colter for a 2-yard loss.
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“The quarterback was behind the open gap,” Santos explained. “I saw him and I just shot my gun, just went in and made the tackle. I had the early release into the gap and just took it.”
Papuchis and the rest of the defensive staff noticed.
“That play showed us why we want to put him on the field,” Papuchis said. “He made another good play when Colter kind of broke a few tackles and was scrambling. David came from nowhere to make the tackle in the red zone. That’s why we like him and that’s why you’re going to see him more and more.”
Of course, young players will make mistakes, too. Santos was unable to get over a cut block on Northwestern’s 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
“I think it was a well-executed play, give them props for doing it,” Santos said, “but I should have done my job and got over the block.”
Papuchis said he’s reluctant to take risks on young, talented players who may not be ready for more game time.
“That’s a tough way to make a living,” he said. “I’m not going to roll the dice and hope you do it right on Saturday if you didn’t show me you can do it right Monday through Friday. That’s not fair to anyone in the program."
Which means that young players like Santos will have to be patient.
“I’ve been practicing a lot more and getting more reps," Santos said. "You start to feel more comfortable with what’s going on around you. The communication is better with Will (Compton) and the D-line. Each week goes by I’ve gotten more and more confident in my play. I need to keep working harder and harder and keep elevating my game. Hopefully I’ll get to where I need to be.”
Santos figures to get opportunities to make plays Saturday against one of the nation’s best running quarterbacks, Michigan’s Denard Robinson.
“I love playing the run,” Santos said. “I‘m a linebacker and I like to get physical, if they want to run the ball, I can defend that. I think that’s the better part of my game and just can’t wait to play.”