TAGGED WITH THE "UNDERSIZED" LABEL THROUGHOUT HIS FOOTBALL CAREER, LAVONTE David wants to clarify a common misperception. "I kept reading in the papers last year that I [weighed] 210. I was never 210," says Nebraska's 6' 1" senior outside linebacker. "I was 213 when I got here [last June], played the season at 218 and am weighing in at 225 now."
Last season David produced another number, and this one nobody could dispute: 152, his total tackles. They were third highest of any FBS player and a Nebraska record. David's feat was all the more remarkable considering the Fort Scott (Kans.) Community College transfer arrived in Lincoln a couple months before the start of preseason practice and moved into the starting lineup out of necessity after Sean Fisher broke his leg during camp. "We were hoping to bring him on a little bit slower," says Huskers coach Bo Pelini of David, "but when we lost Fisher, he had to step up a little bit faster."
David had already begun preparing himself by hitting the film room, where Fisher and middle linebacker Will Compton served as tutors, grilling him the night before games. Their pupil had a team-high 13 tackles in the Huskers' opener against Western Kentucky and rarely slowed down from there, finishing with double-digit tackles in eight of Nebraska's 14 games, including 17 against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. He finished the year with six sacks and 15 tackles for loss, along with 10 pass breakups. Not only was David required to call plays for the defense on the field, but also—because of the Huskers' extensive use of nickel and dime packages to counter Big 12 spread offenses—David was often the only linebacker in the game. "As good a year as he had, he made a lot of mistakes," says Pelini. "I think he'll have a better year this year."
David's emergence as one of the nation's premier linebackers would have seemed improbable four years ago. A Miami native, David started for USA Today's 2007 national champion, Northwestern High, alongside current Hurricanes Jacory Harris, Sean Spence and Marcus Forston. But David's low test scores scared off major recruiters and prevented him from qualifying at Middle Tennessee State, where he had committed to play. He enrolled instead at Fort Scott, where he led the Jayhawk Conference with 93 tackles during his first season. Nebraska's recruiters took notice. "We liked him from the start. He fits what we do," says Pelini. "Some people were backing off him because of his size, but our coaches saw what he could do."
Though David always envisioned himself returning closer to his South Florida roots, he didn't take long to embrace his new heartland home. "I thought I was going to be homesick, but it didn't happen," he says. "It's a really great place. It's a football state."
In addition to working on minimizing those mistakes Pelini cited, David spent the off-season packing on muscle, a point of emphasis since the day he got to Lincoln. It should benefit him when trying to stuff physical Big Ten runners like Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Iowa's Marcus Coker. David also looks forward to the returns of a healthy Fisher (who was out all of 2010) and Compton (who missed the first five games with a foot injury) to provide the same kind of support on the field as they did in the film room.
For his part Pelini looks forward to seeing what new levels David can reach. "He's faster, he's stronger, he's really instinctive," says the coach. "He's only scratching the surface."