Will Compton can laugh about it now. But when it happened, it was no laughing matter. “I was like a deer in the headlights,” he said. “I was nervous. I was caught off-guard.”
Compton was a freshman on coach Bo Pelini’s first team at Nebraska in 2008. The Huskers were playing Virginia Tech at Memorial Stadium, and the way Compton remembers it, a linebacker (it might have been Phillip Dillard, a junior) “blew a (pass) coverage.”
The game was the fourth of the season, and as with most of those in his recruiting class, Compton had yet to see action, the intention being that he would redshirt.
At that instant, however, the redshirt was about to be pulled. Pelini turned to linebackers coach Mike Ekeler and “told him, ‘Get Will ready,’ ” said Compton. “They were both walking towards me, fast-paced, just ticked off at what had happened, and Coach Ekeler said, ‘Will, get ready to rock and roll.’ ”
Compton grabbed his helmet, as a crowd of 85,831 looked on.
“I was standing there, pacing back and forth,” he said.
Pelini recalled the situation during his weekly news conference before Nebraska’s final home game against Minnesota on Saturday. “I fought the urge to put him (Compton) in there,” Pelini said.
It was “the right decision for Will,” said Pelini. “That was kind of hard to do at that time . . . but we were trying to build something for the future.”
That future is now.
The Huskers have won four in a row and put themselves in position to play for the Big Ten championship at Indianapolis on Dec. 1. Nebraska last won a conference championship in 1999, when Compton was 10-years-old and Pelini was coaching New England Patriots linebackers.
Also, with a victory at Indianapolis, the Huskers would play in the Rose Bowl.
But that’s down the line. Nebraska still has two regular-season games remaining, and if it loses focus, it still could be denied a trip to the Big Ten championship game.
Compton’s senior class has played an important role in putting the Huskers in this position. The class is large, 29 players, including 23 besides Compton who redshirted in 2008.
Defensive lineman Cameron Meredith and linebacker Sean Fisher both saw brief action in early games as true freshmen but were injured and received medical redshirts.
“We kind of made that decision my first year when I came in that we would redshirt most of them during that first year,” Pelini said. “I was trying to get the lay of the land of building for the future.”
Compton had been recruited by Bill Callahan’s staff, and though he remained committed, he decided to consider other schools, specifically Notre Dame, Illinois and Missouri, his home-state university. But Pelini persuaded him to stick with Nebraska by sending the entire defensive coaching staff to his home in Bonne Terre, Mo., just before letter-of-intent-signing day.
Compton’s class is “a special group of guys,” said Pelini. “I kind of put that class together quickly in a short amount of time, and I think they’ve accomplished a lot. It’s a tremendous group of kids, not just as football players but more importantly as how they’ve represented this program and what they’ve done off the field as much as they’ve done on the field.”
Compton was among 22 scholarship recruits in the Pelini’s first recruiting class, 14 of whom will be suiting up for the final time at Memorial Stadium for the Minnesota game – though Fisher could petition for an additional season of eligibility because of injuries.
Seven of the 22 left the program for various reasons
Alfonzo Dennard was the 15th member the scholarship class but played without redshirting. He finished his Husker career a year ago and is now playing with the Patriots.
Dennard, a cornerback, was among three true freshmen who played for Pelini’s first team. Compton was nearly a fourth, and not just in the Virginia Tech game. He was ready to go into the Baylor game when injuries to Dillard and Cody Glenn depleted the depth at linebacker.
Compton anticipated being sent in. But “Coach Bo called me over and said, ‘Don’t worry about putting your helmet on because we’re not going to put you in there. I wouldn’t do that without sitting down with you and your parents and talking about it,’ ” Compton said.