Ndamukong Suh lit the college football world on fire in 2009 with his play. Nebraska came within a literal second of a Big 12 championship and Suh got as close to a Heisman trophy as any defender had since Charles Woodson. He was taken with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft following that season.
In 2010, Lavonte David arrived at Nebraska after two years of standout play at the junior college level. In his two seasons as a Husker, David went on to set a single-season record for tackles, earn first-team All-America honors, and become a finalist for the Butkus Award.
Suh certainly has an argument as one of the most impactful defensive linemen in program history. David can say the same from his linebacker spot. And they missed each other by just one season. The former likes to joke that if they’d played together at Nebraska, David would have been a first-round draft selection. David will quip back that if Suh had played another year in Lincoln, he would have been the No. 1 pick in the draft instead of the No. 2.
“We talk about that,” David said Monday with a grin.
They aren’t missing each other now. Suh and David both play key roles for a Tampa Bay Bucs defense that will have to contend with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV this Sunday.
“It’s an unreal moment,” David said during a virtual media session with reporters in advance of the game. “It took forever to get here, so I’m just trying to take it all in.”
This is only Suh’s second season in Tampa. In some ways, he represents a changing of the guard that David has lived through. Coinciding with Suh’s arrival was the hire of head coach Bruce Arians.
A year later, Arians swapped out the mercurial quarterback Jameis Winston for the living legend that is Tom Brady, and then coaxed future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement to re-up with Brady in Tampa. Brady piloted an offense that ranked third in the league in points.
Tampa went 11-5 and dispatched the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game to book a trip back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2002.
The new regime has ushered in a dream season, while the seasoned past has borne the burden of setting the foundation. David has been through the grind. Tampa Bay drafted him in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft and he’s spent the first nine seasons of his NFL career living largely anonymously to the casual NFL public. In seven of his nine years, the Bucs have finished with a losing record.
He’s seen 2-14, 4-12, and 5-11 seasons. Arians is his fourth coach. Todd Bowles is his fifth defensive coordinator.
“From when I first got here to now, it’s completely different as far as who you see every day on a day-to-day basis, people from upstairs to the coaching staff to players, there’s only like a handful of guys—maybe two or three guys I know off the bat—that have been here since I stepped foot in this organization,” he said.
But David has been a rock on the defense from the moment he stepped into the organization. He’s played at least 97% of Tampa’s defensive snaps in six of his nine years and led the defense in tackles seven times.
“I feel like playing for Bo Pelini, he helped me a lot,” David said. “Playing in that defensive scheme, playing that style, he kinda helped me transition to the league fast, as far as terminology and stuff like that.”
He earned a spot on the All-Rookie team in 2012 and was named to the All-Pro first team just a year later. David’s only been to one Pro Bowl, though. This past offseason was the first time he’d been voted to the preseason NFL Top 100 list since 2016, and he checked in at No. 100.
“He’s one of the best in the league at his position, and he’s been playing for quite some time,” NFL Network’s Peter Schrager said last week on Good Morning Football. “I think he played for those Tom Osborne Nebraska Cornhuskers teams with Tommie Frazier and Cory Schlesinger, Carlos Polk. That’s how long he’s been in the league. It feels like he’s been playing forever, and this is finally his first trip to the playoffs and it’s been quite a ride.
“Lavonte David has been in the league quite some time and has only been voted to one Pro Bowl. It’s because Tampa Bay is usually on the seventh FOX game at 1 o’clock playing the Panthers. You’re not watching Lavonte, and they never play in big games. They were on primetime three times over the last decade. I think Lavonte David is gonna get a lot of pub over the next few days, and I think he should get a lot of pub. He should have been getting it for the last few years.”
Perhaps one of the most productive NFL exports in Nebraska program history, David has been “underrated” for almost his entire NFL career.
Brady’s arrival immediately elevated the Bucs to must-watch status in casual NFL circles, which meant more eyes would be on David than ever before. With 117 tackles (second only to Devin White), he turned in his eighth career 100-tackle season, adding 12 TFLs, six pass deflections, three forced fumbles, and a pick.
David was once again a player to lean on.
“Everything will turn around eventually,” he said of what his career has taught him. “This year, it’s been that moment, having a lot of televised games and going through the playoffs and being in this position. A lot of people can see why I feel like I should be one of the best linebackers in this game.
“Being able to go out there on this type of stage, the Super Bowl, and be able to put it on display, there’s definitely going to be people turning their heads and seeing what type of football player that I am, or the type of football player they’ve been missing for the past nine years.”
He gave a shoutout to his family for keeping him on the straight and narrow to get to where he is. Asked what his inspiration was as a young athlete, he said cousins and other family members who played football before he was old enough.
“I wanted to play and be like them,” he said.
Now, there are linebackers looking at him and saying the same thing. White is in just his second season out of LSU.
“My main thing I try to do is just serve the guys, be a helping hand,” he said. “I’m not a yelling guy, I’m not going to yell at you, I’m not going to curse at you or whatever, I’m just going to basically pull you to the side and talk to you like a man. I think guys respect that and take that well.”
The other Nebraska connection on the defense is Khalil Davis, a rookie lineman whom David says Suh lovingly stays on.
Sunday will be a big moment for all of them. To share it is special. Just to witness it is something not lost on David.
“I know how hard it is to get here,” he says.
He says he’s not “too big-eyed” as that moment approaches. Just go out and help bring the Lombardi Trophy home, he says.
Let his play on the field speak for itself. He’ll certainly have his hands full.
If things break right for the Bucs, perhaps David and Suh can turn questions of “what if?” into conversations that begin “remember when…?” Perhaps someone will see David for the first time and question what they’ve been missing all these years.
“I really don’t try to get all caught up in it, I just try to go out there and play the game the best I can play,” he says. “At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, that’s for people to decide, but I know in my mind I’m one of the greatest.”