LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska's Lavonte David makes so many tackles that his teammates jokingly complain that he never gives anyone else a chance to make a play.
David laughs at them and says, "You gotta beat me to it."
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior from Miami plays very big for a linebacker who showed up at Nebraska last year a bit undersized. He's made 229 tackles in 22 games, an average of 10.4. His teammates call him the tackle machine.
"Every time he tackles somebody, he doesn't let anybody come in and get an assist. He makes sure they go down quick," cornerback Alfonzo Dennard said.
David's 77 stops this season are 24 more than the next man on the tackle chart. He doesn't blink when asked if his productivity amazes him.
"It's what they expect out of me," he said. "They expect me to do my best like everybody on the field. Fortunately, I end up getting those double-digit tackles."
His 13 stops against Michigan State last week gave him the school record for career tackles by a two-year player.
"Lavonte David, if he's not the best linebacker in this conference or in the country I'm not sure who is. He's got great ability to diagnose the play, he's fast, he's physical, he's good in pass coverage, he's the full package," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team plays at No. 9 Nebraska on Saturday.
David played at about 210 pounds last year and was a perfect fit in Nebraska's defensive scheme when the Huskers were going against the spread offenses of the Big 12. He set a single-season record with 152 tackles and was the Big 12's defensive newcomer of the year.
There was some concern about how David would fare against the pounding offenses of the Big Ten, so he gained 15 pounds in the offseason. Obviously, the transition hasn't been a problem. He is the Big Ten's only semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which honors the nation's top linebacker.
In fact, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said, the Big Ten is beginning to see more linebackers in the mold of David.
"He can run like a safety, but at the front of the pack he's as physical as anybody we have," Pelini said. "He'll take on 240-pound fullbacks. He isn't just a speed guy. He's a physical football player."
David is a natural weakside linebacker, and NFL draft analysts project him as a second-rounder in 2012. Nebraska also has used David as the lone linebacker when it goes into the dime package with two extra defensive backs.
When it comes to David, coach Bo Pelini said, size doesn't matter.
"I don't care if he's 5-6. Somebody who plays football the way he does is a valuable piece," he said.
His biggest play of the season, and perhaps of his career, wasn't even a tackle. It came in the second half of the 34-27 win over Ohio State on Oct. 8, after the Buckeyes had taken a 27-6 lead in the third quarter.
With OSU on the move, David pulled the ball out of quarterback Braxton Miller's grasp. Nebraska scored two plays later to start the biggest comeback in school history.
"I thought he played an outstanding football game against Ohio State, and that's about as 'Big Ten' offense as you're going to see," Bo Pelini said. "They're pretty downhill. I think he's adapted well, and I think you can put him into any style and he's going to find ways to make plays."Comment on this story
Bo Pelini said David has worked hard in film study to improve his understanding of the defensive schemes. Though David made play after play last season, coaches didn't lavish praise on him because he tended to play outside the system and try to do too much.
Structure is critical in the Pelini brothers' system. What one player does affects what the one next to him does, and so on down the line.
"But sometimes your instincts have to take over on the field," David said. "You have to know what you're doing, but if you see a guy outside the box, you have to chase him down and make a tackle."