The waitress that served them still remembered the table clear as day almost a week after the fact.
When defensive line coach Tony Tuioti asked his room if they wanted dinner, there was a unanimous yes. He told them to pick a spot in Lincoln and the Hawaii native who came to Nebraska by way of Cal just a month ago would take his new group out to eat.
“I think the quickest way to make friends is to break bread together,” Tuioti says.
And the defensive line wanted The Watering Hole. So, Tuioti and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander took a group of 15 of the team’s defensive lineman out for wings. Except it wasn’t just wings. At the end of the night, Nebraska’s line had devoured 36 pounds of chicken wings — traditional and grilled — eight baskets of fries, eight baskets of tater tots and a cheeseburger each.
“I think we ate them out of chicken that night,” Tuioti said. “All I know is those people in the back were working and they were sweating coming out.”
Senior Carlos Davis estimated the bill at around $600 for the table.
“We put away a lot of food,” he said. “A lot."
After the fourth round of wings for the table, when Tuioti thought everyone was done, sophomore Damion Daniels raised his hand and asked for a cheeseburger. “I’m not surprised by how big he is,” Tuioti joked of the guy he called “Snacks.” And once Daniels asked, the whole table raised their hands to join in.
“I thought it was never going to end that night,” Tuioti said. “It was awesome.”
Tuioti, of course, is trying to build relationships with a group that already has a pretty tight bond. The Davis twins — Carlos and Khalil — are almost never seen apart from Deontre Thomas and Damion Daniels and DaiShon Neal. Damion’s brother, Darrion, is in town after transferring from Oklahoma State and wasting no time establishing himself amongst the d-lineman.
They all have a good bond, Tuioti says, a good vibe. He wants to keep that going.
“These guys are family, this is our football family,” Tuioti said. “We've got to be a family, we’ve got to be one, we’ve got to take care of each other.”
That kind of coaching approach fits right in with this coaching staff. It’s all about family, from the way the head coach talks about his players to the fact this group has all been together for four seasons now. “Play for the brother to your left and the brother to your right” is a common refrain from everyone. Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher wants his room close enough to where a corner isn’t afraid of giving up a big play, he’s afraid of letting down his teammates. The same can be said for the defensive line.
On the field, Tuioti isn’t one to yell and scream and jump around and get in his players’ faces. He’s mellow, as Carlos Davis puts it. He’s a people person and an easy guy to connect with. The transition so far from Mike Dawson, who accepted a job with the New York Giants in early February, to Tuioti has been as seamless as Nebraska could have hoped for.
“Most coaches when they come in, they try to break everyone down and set the tone,” Davis said. “He did a good job of getting to know us before we got to football. And he's still doing that.”
Plus, given his coaching background, that’s the only learning going on for the new coach. Whether that’s reasoning or not for the defensive line drawing rave reviews early in spring ball remains to be seen, but Tuioti already knows he likes the pieces he has at his disposal.
“I think we’ve got a group of guys that have a good skill set that we can mix and match as we find personnel groupings to be able to play what we want up front,” he said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. I told the guys we’re not going to get where we want to be at in 15 practices, but as long as we try to close the gap each and every practice and come with the right mindset, we’re going to probably find the results we want to at the end of the day.”
His defensive line at Cal was one of the better units in college football last season because it had guys that brought the same consistent approach. Asked how the Huskers’ line compared to Cal’s, Tuioti said that was the point of growth. “There’s no givens, what happens today doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again on Friday,” he said.
He’s got some alpha males in Damion and Darrion Daniels, saying the older Darrion is growing more vocal within the room and the greater defensive unit by the day. “That’s one thing we always try to find, is a nose guard who’s a real war daddy,” Tuioti said. And it helps on the football field, but it also helps everywhere else.
The ultimate goal is to have a group so close that criticism doesn’t hurt the chemistry. If you’re comfortable enough with one another and you see someone falling short, you likely won’t have many reservations about calling them out. Darrion is already at that point, sophomore Damian Jackson is, too.
“What are we willing to tolerate of each other?” Tuioti asks his bunch. “If we’re willing to tolerate underperforming, then we’re not going to get where we want to be at. Blackshirt has to mean something. Our defensive line code has to mean something.”
Back at that table in the middle of The Watering Hole, when they weren’t mowing down baskets of chicken wings, the defensive line was taking turns roasting each other with memes and kid pictures in a group chat.
“Once the shots were fired it was over,” Tuioti said. “I want to say every three seconds pictures were coming ding, ding, ding and the whole table was just laughing.”
That all went on for a good hour, Tuioti says.
“If we have that culture in our room, that culture’s going to show up on the field, too. That’s what I want to establish with those guys.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.