On YouTube, Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David’s takeaway from Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is tagged as the “Strip That Saved the Season.”
Because it came on Oct. 8, Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els won’t go that far, even though the play sparked the biggest comeback in Cornhuskers history.
Walloped by Wisconsin the previous week, Nebraska trailed Ohio State by 21 points midway through the third quarter. Miller ran for a first down, then turned his back before he went to the ground. David saw his chance and attacked, grabbing at the ball, and said afterward it fell into his hands. Nebraska rallied for a 34-27 victory in its first Big Ten game in Lincoln.
“Those things are flukes,” Els said by telephone last week. “Those types of things are usually once in a season or once in a career.”
In the next breath, Els conceded, “He did it twice last year,” referring to a 20-7 victory over Iowa to end the regular season. Nebraska led 13-0 in the third quarter when tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz caught a 24-yard pass for a first down, but David got the ball out. “He has the ability to come up with the big play at the right time.”
Selected the linebacker of the year in the Big Ten, David is projected by ESPN’s Todd McShay to be selected between 25th and 40th overall in the April 26-28 NFL Draft. The Browns hold the 37th pick and hosted David for a visit on Tuesday.
Finishing fourth on Nebraska’s all-time tackles list (285) despite playing only two years, David could help a Browns’ run defense that ranked 30th in the league last season. He’s also adept at covering tight ends, a longtime Browns weakness.
The addition of David on the weak side could allow the Browns to leave Chris Gocong on the strong side, where he excelled in the final five games. The Browns must also worry about a possible suspension for Scott Fujita in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal.
The biggest knock on David is his size. Standing 6-foot › he allayed some of those fears when he weighed 233 pounds at the NFL Combine.
“I underrated him based off of what I saw watching games during the fall, just at his size and not thinking that he’d be able to take on blocks and get through traffic,” McShay admitted during a March 30 conference call. “When I started watching tape of him, I got excited about the little things he’s doing, his instincts. He’s always around the ball.
“The more I watch, the more I really believe he’s going to be able to play at the next level and do it at a high level. I think he understands how to keep blockers off his body, when to take on blocks, when to slip.
“He plays even faster and more athletic than his numbers indicate. I was really impressed. I went from having a second-, third-round grade and thinking possibly a sub- package player to, after about six games of tape, really believing he belonged in the top 40.”
Asked at the combine about shedding blockers, David said: “I’m really working on getting stronger, more physical. I’m going to try to take it to the next level.”
His takeaway from Miller might be David’s calling card, but one of his biggest games came in 2009, when he was the best defensive player on an undefeated Fort Scott Community College team that faced Cam Newton-led Blinn College for the junior college national championship.
Former Fort Scott coach Jeff Sims is still second-guessing himself over that one.
Now recruiting coordinator and receivers coach under former Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini at Florida Atlantic, Sims assigned David to shadow Newton, the No. 1 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2011.
Fort Scott was leading with 2:23 remaining as Blinn faced a fourth-and-8.
“It’s one-on-one, Lavonte David and Cam Newton,” Sims recalled by telephone last week. “Lavonte drops him for a sack and everybody goes crazy and thinks we’ve won the national championship.”
But with 14 seconds to play, Blinn ran back a punt 88 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“Possibly one of the biggest regrets of my life is that Lavonte was always on the punt team. I took him off that week because he was spying Cam Newton and I wanted him fresh,” Sims said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if Lavonte’s on the field, he tackles the kid.”
Sims said when David was coming out of Miami Northwestern, one of the top high school program in the country, seven of his teammates went to Division I programs.
“All he wanted to do in life was play for the Miami Hurricanes and they thought he was too small,” Sims said.
With poor test scores, David ended up at Fort Scott, which was loaded with talent. Among David’s teammates were two New York Giants — Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, a first-round pick in 2010, and linebacker Jaquain Williams, a sixth-round choice in 2011.
“Lavonte played on a team that had seven guys who could potentially be in the NFL next year and Lavonte was our best defensive player,” Sims said of the 2008 squad that included Pierre-Paul. “It took Lavonte all of two practices to be the best linebacker. Jaquian was taller, longer, more athletic. But when it comes to tacking the guy with the ball, that’s what Lavonte did.”
When he finished at Fort Scott, Sims said, David had offers only from Nebraska and South Florida, where Pierre-Paul and Williams had ended up. Sims said David tried for the second time to go to Miami and was again rebuffed.
“I have Randy Shannon on the phone and I’m saying, ‘Look, Coach, all this kid wants to do in life is play for Miami,’ ” Sims said. “Randy Shannon says, ‘How much does he weigh?’ I go, ‘Coach, he’s 215.’ I was lying; he was 208.”
Sims convinced Carl Pelini to take David at Nebraska, but believes that’s because David came in a package deal with left tackle Jermarcus Hardrick.
“On his recruiting visit, Lavonte went with Mike Ekeler, the linebacker coach, and they sat down and started X’s and O’s,” Sims said. “Mike barged into Bo Pelini’s office and said, ‘Coach, this guy can play for us right now.’ He knew the system; he knows football. When Jon Gruden does all that quarterback stuff on ESPN, Lavonte could sit there and do that.”
Sims said two weeks after David arrived at Nebraska in July 2010, Carl Pelini called.
“He’s saying, ‘He might be the best football player I’ve ever coached,’ and that was after they coached Ndamukong Suh,” Sims said.
Sims said David isn’t crazy about running or lifting weights, although he does it without prodding.
“But when you throw a football out there, it could be in a parking lot, that kid is fired up,” Sims said. “They talk about turning it on on game day. He’s that way at practice.”
David might not have started immediately at Nebraska, but injuries to two top linebackers before the opener gave him his chance. He finished with 152 tackles, a season record, and was named defensive Most Valuable Player.
“Lavonte had to go in and play middle linebacker the entire season,” Els said. “That shows you how quickly he was able to pick up the defense and be able to run the show because our middle linebacker makes a ton of checks and a ton of decisions. He’s a sponge as far as knowledge is concerned.”
Last season, Els said David played the middle in dime or six-defensive back packages, but started on the weak side. Co-captain David led the Cornhuskers in nearly every defensive category, totaling 133 tackles, 13 tackles for losses, 5› sacks and two interceptions, and shared team MVP and weightlifting awards.
Els loves David’s instincts and football intelligence, but also admires him for the way he deflects praise.
“He’s not cocky. He’s quiet, almost shy,” Els said. “He never credits himself. He’s hard on himself.
“We stopped Penn State late in the game. We were up three and it was fourth-and-1 and Penn State decided to go for it. Lavonte made a one-on-one tackle. When I congratulated him on it after I came down from the press box, the first thing he said was, ‘No, man, they kept the linemen off of me.’ ”
Because David played only two years in Division I, Els believes he will continue to improve.
“I think he’s going to be a great find,” Els said.
Sims will go even further in his prediction.
“Lavonte David has been successful at every level and at every level people have questioned him,” Sims said. “Unless he gets injured, he’s going to play double-digit years in the NFL and he’s going to be a great player.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.