Ever since Nebraska has switched to a 3-4 defense, the Huskers have been searching for someone to man the nose tackle position.
Mick Stoltenberg played the good soldier, builking up to handle the role as best he could. However, his height made gaining leverage difficult and he wasn’t able to stay healthy.
Nebraska brought in Vaha Vainuku as a transfer to play that spot, but he has yet to see the field. Damion Daniels has the measurables and has promise, but he hasn’t shown yet that he’s ready to play full-time. Carlos Davis started nine games at that position last year after Stoltenberg got hurt, but again, it wasn’t his natural position.
Then Darrion Daniels entered the picture this offseason. At 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds, the older Daniels brother is the kind of larger-than-life figure that can handle the nose tackle position and allow everyone else on that defensive line to settle into their natural spots.
“Darrion just coming in and securing that nose spot, that’s going to be big for us because he’s massive and he’s going to demand two,” Carlos said. “I always tell people you can’t single-block Darrion. He’s going to add a different dynamic to this defense, especially at nose. I’m a big dude, but he’s bigger than me. It will be fun to see how teams game-plan against us.”
Daniels quickly won over that room after arriving as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State and emerged as a leader. As long as he can stay healthy and stay on the field, he can be a difference-maker for this team. Additionally, his presence allows little brother Damion (all 6-foot-3 and 340 pounds of him) to continue progressing along his natural timeline, handling the leftover snaps when Darrion needs a breather.
“Darrion and Damion being in the middle, we trust them,” Deontre Thomas said. “We trust them that they’re going to make the play and do their job in the middle.”
The added bonus of having the Daniels brothers in the middle is guys like Thomas and Davis don’t have to play there.
Thomas arrived at Nebraska at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, and found his way onto the field as a true freshman at nose tackle. The previous staff liked him as a change of pace behind the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Stoltenberg. He won some battles with his quickness, but he also got eaten up by bigger interior linemen and double teams. Last season, Thomas slid outside to his more natural end position, though a broken hand limited him to four games and a redshirt year. Now healthy and listed at 295 pounds, he’s looking forward to building off of what he did with his opportunities last year.
“I’m excited,” Thomas said. “I won’t have to take double-teams all the time and get banged up by guards. I can just play on the tackle, win my one-on-one battle and just play.”
At 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds, Davis has the size to fill in at nose tackle, but his production fell off when he was asked to play that position last year. As a sophomore, Davis recorded 42 tackles including three for loss and six quarterback hurries. Last season, those numbers dropped to 27 tackles including 2.5 for loss (just one sack) and one quarterback hurry.
“I do feel more natural at end just because that’s what I’ve played since I was little,” Davis said. “I know the ins and outs. But nose was fun. It’s dirty work man, but you’ve got to be a different type of beast to handle that. It was fun but hopefully I’ll get to stay at end this year. I’ll play a little nose, but hopefully it’s not a lot.”
Thomas’ return to health, a pair of redshirt freshmen getting into the mix in Tate Wildeman and Casey Rogers (both of whom were injured last year) and a potential early-impact recruit in Ty Robinson could potentially give the Huskers something that haven’t had up front in a while: depth.
“That’s big, man,” Carlos Davis said. “We need depth. That’s one of the things we’ve been lacking these couple years. We haven’t been playing as many guys as we wanted to, so having them to back us up, just like now, in the season that’s going to be big-time.”
Here’s the picture on the defensive line: Darrion Daniels, Damion Daniels and Vaha Vainuku at nose; Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, Ben Stille, Deontre Thomas, DaiShon Neal, Chris Walker, Tate Wildeman, Casey Rogers, Ty Robinson and Mosai Newsom at end; walk-ons filling in wherever they’re needed.
“That’s better for the defense, just everybody playing what they’ve known since they were little, just going out and making plays,” Davis said.
If Nebraska’s defense is able to take a big step forward this season, the defensive line will play a big part in that.