- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2015

ASHBURN — Kyle Shanahan’s patented bootleg plays, a staple in his hybrid West Coast offense, had the ability to deceive almost every linebacker on the Washington Redskins’ practice field.

During the 2013 season, Shanahan’s last as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, a pseudo-competition formed among the linebackers, who were constantly challenging one another not to bite on the fake stretch-run but to follow the quarterback.

It was something that always tripped someone up, but it would hardly ever be Will Compton, then an unknown undrafted free agent out of Nebraska who had spent the first 16 weeks on the practice squad.

“His rookie year, we used to call him the ‘Roll-Back King,’” said Perry Riley, who started all 16 games that season and led the team in tackles. “That was his nickname. He was the best at seeing the boot. In practice, we’d always have these different boots and all the linebackers would get caught up on the stretch and he’d always read the boot right. We’d all be like, ‘Man, what are you seeing?’ Obviously, whoever was coaching him at Nebraska taught him well. He just came in as a rookie ready mentally-wise. He was ready, and you can see it now.”

Hardly anything has changed since then. Compton still has an uncanny ability to read and diagnose offenses before the ball is snapped. The only difference is that he is getting an extended chance to showcase it. As injuries to Riley and fellow inside linebacker Keenan Robinson have thinned the depth at the position, Compton has emerged as emerged as a stabilizing force, especially in his last six starts as the mike linebacker — the one responsible for the signal-calling and aligning the defensive formation.

The seconds are short before the ball is snapped, but Compton finds a way to freeze the game. In his head, he rapidly flips through his reads like slides in an old carousel projector, discarding the ones he doesn’t need.

“It makes it sound complicated, but the coaching I’ve had, and what I try to stress myself on, it all starts working together,” Compton said. “I’m not trying to be a coach out there, but I’m just trying to use what I’ve prepared and the details and carry it over to the field.”

The latest example, and perhaps the best this season, unfolded in last Sunday’s 24-21 win against the Chicago Bears. In the fourth quarter, with the Redskins clinging to a three-point lead, quarterback Jay Cutler called for a screen pass to Alshon Jeffrey on third-and-10. As Cutler approached the line and saw the Redskins ready to send an all-out blitz, he started shouting, ‘Prison.’ That’s when Compton started gesturing wildly to alert the defense that the screen pass was coming.

It wasn’t quite the word Compton expected the Bears to use for the audible, but through his diligent preparation during the week, which includes hours of note-taking and film work, it was close enough for him to recognize what was coming. Defensive end Chris Baker tackled Jeffrey for a two-yard gain, making a critical stop late in the game.

“We joke around and call him ‘Coach Comp’ sometimes because he breaks down all the film himself,” outside linebacker Trent Murphy said. “He takes what the coaches take, and then he takes his own stuff too and breaks down every play, gets the run-pass tendencies, knows what they’re going to run, when they’re going to run it. It’s a huge advantage. It help everyone else play with confidence.”

Compton’s unique preparation began at Nebraska, where he played for coach Bo Pelini. The defense, according to Compton, didn’t seem particularly complex. It was the weaving web of reads and keys on the field that challenged the linebackers, above anything else, to play with a heightened sense of accountability. If the linebacker didn’t relay the communication properly to the defensive line and the secondary, Pelini preached, the defense would collapse.

In four seasons at Nebraska, Compton learned how to prey on opposing teams’ tendencies. Under the tutelage of Pelini’s detail-oriented staff, Compton developed many of the heady skills he’s showing with the Redskins. He also worked closely with former Nebraska linebacker Barrett Ruud, who set the school record with 432 tackles from 2001 through 2004 and would visit campus in the offseason to work with players.

When Compton was on the Redskins’ practice squad in 2013, he used to sit upstairs at the facility at Redskins Park and game plan the offense as if he were calling the game. It wasn’t to fulfill some fantasy to be an offensive coordinator — he did it so he could gain a better understanding of the defensive concepts.

“The way I take notes and everything, that’s always stayed the same,” Compton said. “Barrett came in during the offseason and told me a concept he used. I twisted it into my own way. The way coaches went through film, personnel, I started to figure out my own concept with it. We had a lot on our plate defensive-wise at Nebraska. It was nothing I couldn’t handle, but it prepared me for the NFL.”

After starting five games last season, again because of injuries to Riley and Robinson, Compton was relegated to a backup role this year. After Riley strained a calf muscle in Week 2, Compton started the next two games and made a combined 18 tackles, but he went back to the bench once Riley was healthy.

Then, in Week 10, the Redskins made the decision to start Compton over Robinson at mike linebacker. Robinson had been dealing with a complicated shoulder issue, but the decision to start Compton was already made before that, Gruden had said at the time.

Compton and Riley played noticeably well together for three games. Riley, who had struggled previously, had two interceptions and 21 tackles, but he broke a bone in his right foot in practice on Dec. 3. The Redskins turned to veteran Mason Foster, who signed with the team in late September after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cut him during the preseason.

“Even before we were out there, sitting next to each other in meeting rooms, he was helping me on little stuff,” Foster said. “He’s made it real easy. Once we got on the field together, we were seeing the same thing. We’re tied on a string and play off each other well. Even if I do make a mistake, he’s right there behind me like I didn’t.”

It’s uncertain what defensive role Riley and Robinson will have when they return, assuming they have one at all. Robinson has been active the last two games, but has not played a defensive snap. Either way, it’s clear Compton has solidified a starting role for the remainder of the season.

“The communication and everything, it’s hard to get him out of there,” Gruden said. “He’s always been a focus guy. That’s as important as being an athletic linebacker, understanding tendencies and formations, helping the guys out, getting in the right gaps and making calls. Guys play well with him.”

While Compton’s game is predicating on honing in on tendencies, he’s never guessing. His moves are more what he considers educated calculations, ones backed up by hours of film study and note-taking. Every so often he has to remind himself occasionally not to overanalyze everything. Even then, he tends to end up in the right place.

• Anthony Gulizia can be reached at agulizia@washingtontimes.com.

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