Nebraska’s defensive line is arguably the deepest position on a defense returning most of its production from a year ago. Ben Stille’s return was huge for that group, but the key to a better season likely lies on the interior with the nose tackles.
“Especially in the 3-4 defense, everything starts from the inside out, especially with the run game,” defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said. “Those guys up front, especially at that position, they need to command four hands. If they block them with just one guy, they’ve got to dominate. They’ve got to win. So they need two people on them every time and Damion’s that type of guy. If you try to single him, he’s going to win those, especially now. I feel really confident about him.
Damion Daniels was No. 3 on Derek Peterson’s Most Intriguing Huskers list for a reason. Lighter on his feet than he’s ever been, Tuioti said Daniels is having his best fall camp practices since he arrived in Lincoln.
“He’s in shape, and mentally he’s in the right place,” Tuioti said. “He’s a guy, early on I talked about him only taking two, three reps. Shoot, I can push him to seven, I can push him to eight and he’s not asking to come off the field. He’s got a really, really good mindset. He’s done a really good job taking care of his body and cutting his weight down. He’s going to be ready to go. We have two weeks left to go and I’m really happy with where he’s at.”
Two years ago, Daniels was listed at 340 pounds. Last year, he was at 335. This year, the roster shows him at 325 pounds.
“He put a plan together and has a goal to help us out even more, and by doing that he’s got to get himself in shape,” Tuioti said. “All of our guys know the best way they can help our team out is to be the best version of themselves, and he’s done that.”
Daniels isn’t the only Husker nose tackle who transformed his body over the offseason. Jordon Riley, the junior college transfer, also cut considerable weight since the end of the season.
“I just give thanks for that to Coach Duval,” Riley said. “I was weighing about 330, close to 340 last year but I’ve really taken the initiative this summer to really drop the weight. I got with Coach Duval, Dave [Ellis], our nutritionist, and they’ve really helped me a lot with that. I feel it tremendously. I’m moving a lot more quickly, a lot faster. My reaction is way faster while playing.”
Riley changed his number from 87 to 91, in large part because he sees himself as a completely different player.
Riley saw action in six games but did not record a stat in his first season as a Husker after transferring from Garden City Community College. In addition to making the transition back to FBS football (Riley began his career at North Carolina before transferring to Garden City) without a full offseason, he also dealt with injury issues that set him back. Still, he tried to make the most of the experience.
“Dealing with the injuries, I just learned the playbook really well,” Riley said. “I was able to get a feel for the Big Ten pace, how they play and how things work around there. Obviously COVID kind of made it not really realistic, but just knowing that it’s going to be a full house this coming season, so to be able to be in that environment and learn the playbook. So this season when I’m in there, it’s not going to be anything new to me.”
Riley said he thought the weight played a part in his injuries and that he feels a lot lighter on his feet and less pressure on his joints. He’s seeing the change show up in terms of improved quickness when he watches his own tape as well.
“The thing about him is he’s starting to learn and understand the scheme of the defense,” Tuioti said. “His mental errors have dramatically dropped. When those guys can see what’s happening in front of them and they can react it, that’s the name of the game. It’s about recognition and reaction. When you see guys play fast that can see what’s happening and they can react to it the right way, that’s when I know they’re in the right place. The game’s kind of slowing down for a lot of these guys which is good to see, especially the older guys.”
Riley’s trying to learn as much as he can from Daniels as well. He called him his “big bro” and somebody he looks up to, a great leader who does all the right things at this stage in his career.
“He plays physical man,” Riley said. “He’s a dog. If he gets knocked back, he gives you everything. He leaves it all on the field for you. That’s a guy you want on your team, that’s a guy you want to look up to. He’s going to bring it every single day and you can just feed off his energy. He’s like an energy bug. He makes a play and he makes everybody better.”
Daniels and Riley are part of the six-man group Tuioti said he feels comfortable with right now. However, there’s a seventh — and a third nose tackle — working to push that total to seven: Nash Hutmacher.
“He’s been doing a really good job up front too as well,” Tuioti said. “He’s getting some reps with the ones and he’s been holding his own and been really good doing that. I’m glad to see some of the young guys elevate their play and be able to help us out with some depth.”
“The Polar Bear” out of South Dakota played in one game last year, the season finale at Rutgers. As a champion wrestler, Hutmacher was plenty strong when he arrived on campus, but Tuioti said he’s made big strides in his overall athleticism to go with that strength at 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds.
“We knew he was big and strong,” Tuioti said. “He can be stout at the point of attack. But he’s really done a good job of being athletic. He’s improved his pass rush game too as well, being able to collapse the pocket and win outside on the edge. He’s just in better shape.
“I really like where that nose tackle position’s at, just having guys like Damion and having guys like Jordon Riley and Nash, that’s a really good place for us to be at for a long, long time.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.