Huskers' Will Compton masters mental edge

May, 9, 2012
5/09/12
1:00
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska linebacker Will Compton reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out his iPhone.

The lock screen displays the following: "Thank God, go to work, do extra, don't give yourself an excuse and become the absolute best." Compton's phone also contains what he describes as desire statements and reward statements.

Desire statement: "I want to be one of THE BEST linebackers in the country."

Reward statement: "Reap the benefits. All-Conference, All-American, getting drafted to the NFL."

Compton reviews the messages every day as part of a routine he adopted during the offseason. His goal: becoming a trusted and genuine leader for Nebraska's defense, which loses several from the 2011 team -- linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, safety Austin Cassidy, tackle Jared Crick.

As Nebraska's starting middle linebacker, Compton, who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, knows leadership comes with the territory. But he has taken a uniquely proactive approach to the responsibilities he'll shoulder in 2012.

"I've put in extra time to know what I can do in that role," Compton told ESPN.com last month. "You can't just all of a sudden be a leader. I try to lead with my personality, be a genuine type of guy instead of just out on the field barking all the time, saying, 'Hey, I'm a leader now. Let's do this and do that.'

"You might naturally have things, but you also need a sense of direction when you're stepping in a role like that."

Compton has taken many of his cues from a book, "The Mental Edge," by noted sports psychologist Ken Baum. During a team flight to a game last season, Compton noticed Huskers star running back Rex Burkhead reading the book and asked him about it.

Burkhead told Compton about some of the visualization techniques the book promoted and how to gear the mind to produce outcomes. Compton admits he's not a big reader, but he became interested.

"I was like, 'Has it helped you out?'" Compton said. "And he said it's done wonders for him. Once he got done with it, I've had it ever since and I've just gone over it a lot, done all the techniques. It's probably the best book I've read."

Compton began spending 10-15 minutes a day visualizing game scenarios and moments of success: a 13-tackle effort in a win at Penn State ... pressuring quarterback Kirk Cousins in a win against Michigan State ... celebrating with his teammates after forcing a turnover ... racking up a career-high 15 tackles in a win against Fresno State. He tried to tune his mind so he could literally "feel the wind and smell the grass." He began doing breathing exercises to relax.

He also worked on performance cues, simple acts that put him in the right mind-set to perform. The cues can be as simple as squeezing a fist or touching an index finger to a thumb.

"When you hit those performance cues," he said, "when you're about ready to take the field, those feelings of excitement and success enter your body."

If Compton needed an extra boost, he watched video of Baltimore Ravens standout linebacker Ray Lewis, whose pregame speeches and displays are never short on emotion.

Burkhead saw changes in his teammate during the winter months and when Nebraska began spring ball.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireLB Will Compton says he's putting the pressure on himself to make Nebraska a standout team in 2012.
"You can see it on the field," Burkhead said. "His energy, his leadership toward the defense, his aggressiveness, the toughness he has to keep pushing throughout practice, you can definitely tell he's made significant improvement."

Compton always has been interested in the mental side of football, but he used to struggle with it. After starting eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2009, he missed the first five contests of 2010 with a foot injury and finished the season with just 15 tackles in nine games (four starts).

The 6-2, 230-pound Compton started 11 games last fall and recorded 82 tackles, including seven for loss.

"A couple years ago, all I thought was, 'Gosh, don't mess up. I don't want the coaches to chew me out,'" he said. "I firmly believe that it's all mental, the way you think for yourself and the way you think of success against negative feelings. When you start to make plays, you don't even worry about messing up any more."

Compton relays a similar message to Nebraska's younger linebackers, especially those who will help fill the void left by David, one of the nation's most productive linebackers the past two seasons.

"It's not being the next Lavonte David," he said. "It's about playing your role, and that role happens to be the starting Will linebacker. You just want success in that."

Nebraska's coaches acknowledge the team's depth at linebacker still isn't where it needs to be for the Big Ten, which requires more linebackers on the field than the Huskers used to play in the Big 12. The issue is being addressed in recruiting, but the Huskers will lean on a select few this fall.

Compton has shown he's ready to answer the bell.

"He's a fifth-year senior, he knows this is his last go-round for this team and the program," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "You can tell everything he's done in the offseason has been purposeful."

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