LINCOLN, Neb. -- David Santos is what passes as a graybeard on Nebraska's defense these days.
Santos is a redshirt sophomore linebacker with one career start under his belt. Yet this spring, he was the guy many of the other Huskers linebackers were turning to for answers.
"It's kind of strange," he said. "This is only my second year, and a lot of guys helped me out last year. Now I guess I'm the veteran in the room. I don't feel old."
Actual game-worn players are hard to find on that side of the ball, especially in the front seven. Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah is the only returnee with significant starting experience, as Big Red's defense will be massively green going into 2013.
So, even though Santos is still young and Ankrah is hardly a household name, both players are being asked to lead this spring and summer.
"It's been cool," Ankrah said. "I've always had somebody older than me be the vocal guy who takes control when things go wrong, and now I'm taking on that leadership. I've had some film sessions with [the other defensive linemen] one-on-one and a couple as a group. They'll ask me how to play a certain technique and other stuff."
Ankrah doesn't just want to lead with his words. The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has shown glimpses of his ability, with six tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and two forced fumbles as a junior. He's eyeing the same kind of breakout senior season that Eric Martin had in 2012.
"I've been out there and I've been playing," he said. "Now, I want to be out there to make plays and change games."
Ankrah had to move down and play defensive tackle some last year as injuries hit the line. With a more set role this season and a little more freedom to get after opposing quarterbacks, he could flourish.
"Jason has played a lot of football for us the last three years, and there have been times when he's played really well," Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "But he feels like there's so much more in his game, and he knows he hasn't reached his potential yet. We want him to go out and have that hunger to have a great year, and I think he's set himself up to have a pretty good senior year."
The Huskers have been expecting good things out of Santos, an athletic linebacker who recorded 10 tackles in his lone start last season against Michigan. He played mostly weakside linebacker last season, but spent the bulk of the spring at the middle spot, where he helped instruct the young players around him on where to lineup. An arm injury near the end of spring practice kept Santos out of the spring game, but he's expected to be back for summer workout.
"He's pretty good at taking command of the guys and at making the calls," Papuchis said. "He's a bit ahead in terms of development from the other guys, and that means we're going to put more responsibility on him."
That responsibility includes not only learning a new position and adjusting to a full-time starting role, but also leading everyone else.
"I can't get lackadaisical, because I want to get to the next level," he said. "But while I'm doing that, I've got to help the young guys little bit."
Santos should get a little help in the leadership department when redshirt junior Zaire Anderson gets healthy. With Anderson at the weakside spot and Santos in the middle, Papuchis likes the speed his linebackers have. Redshirt freshman Jared Afalava drew rave reviews for his spring performance, and could step in at the strongside spot.
The defensive line is more of a mystery, though Papuchis liked what he saw this spring out of guys like Greg McMullen, Avery Moss and Aaron Curry. He thinks Thad Randle can be a force inside if Randle can ever stay healthy, and highly touted junior college defensive end Randy Gregory is coming. The Nebraska defense showed during the spring game that it has a long way to go, but there is some athleticism to work with.
"The one thing about them is they can all run, and that makes up for some inexperience," Papuchis said. "If our guys play hard and they run to the ball and be physical, I think we'll be a pretty good defense."
And Santos and Ankrah will need to lead the way for the front seven.