We’re still a few weeks away from unveiling this year’s group of “Most Intriguing Huskers,” but considering who I had on my podcast this week, it felt like a good time to highlight one specific player who will show up on the list.
From a havoc creation standpoint, the 2019 Nebraska defense was underrated. The Davis bothers, Khalil and Carlos, combined for 15.5 tackles for loss. Ben Stille had 6.5. JoJo Domann did his stuff off the edge, but the presence of Darrion Daniels in the middle helped to free up Nebraska’s inside ‘backers to go make plays. The combo of Mo Barry, Will Honas, and Collin Miller produced another 13.5 tackles for loss, five pass break-ups and two forced fumbles.
Instrumental in all that was Daniels in the middle, a player I don’t think gets enough credit for how he changed the dynamics of the Husker defense.
In 2020, After Daniels’ departure, NU played less often out of three-man fronts. There were other factors at play in that tweak, mind you, and don’t expect those pass-rushing subpackages to go away in the upcoming season, but I wonder what things will look like in 2021 with the younger Daniels brother in the middle if he takes the kind of step it seems as though he’s poised to take.
Damion Daniels averaged around 20 snaps a game a season ago. For his career, he’s been a guy who can burn hot for a limited amount of time. Teammates and coaches affectionally call him ‘Snacks,’ and line coach Tony Tuioti says Snacks has been working toward more consistent play over the last few seasons, but he hasn’t yet arrived as an established force in the middle.
“Now it’s like he’s evolved from—we call him ‘Baby D’ back home—this ‘Baby D’ that we knew into this new version of himself which is a lot more violent—which is surprising—a lot healthier, and a lot more mature than he ever has been,” Darrion told me this week.
“Now, our conversations about football … he’s trying to figure out how he can help impact the team in the biggest way.”
Damion looked leaned out in a major way this spring. At his heaviest, the 6-foot-3 Texan was 340 pounds. As Darrion went through the NFL Draft process a year ago, he shared feedback from teams with his brother.
NFL scouts and coaches wanted him to cut weight. While that was already the plan, Darrion passed along the developing picture to Damion: “Hey, the NFL is changing, they’re not looking for a 330 defensive lineman anymore. You gotta get right.’”
Damion’s response was simple. Time to get to work.
“I know he had a shoulder hiccup and they kinda pulled back on him so he could get that fully back to 100%, but during that time when he was getting back right, I would call him at like 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock at night and he’s drenched in sweat,” Darrion said. “I’m like, ‘Bro, what is you doing this late at night?’ ‘I’m on the stair master, I’ll call you back.’
“And it was a consistent thing where he would just do everything with the team in the morning and then before he’d go to bed, he’s doing some jump ropes, some stairmaster, or the treadmill, he was always trying to do better.”
Damion said he could feel it in his own play on the field.
He’ll send his older brother clips from practice looking for feedback. Whereas when they played together and Darrion saw a nose tackle run for 5 or 6 yards before gassing out, on spring tape this year Darrion was seeing a player running longer and faster than before, running full-throttle to the ball and sometimes getting there before others.
“I know talking to Coach Tuioti he said he can definitely see the difference in his body, but he can also see a difference in his play on the field,” Darrion said.
One particular Big Ten linemen who heard his name called in this most recent NFL Draft had a clip in his highlight reel that featured Damion getting dislodged at the point of attack.
“Hey bro, everybody in America saw you on buddy’s highlight,” Darrion said to his brother.
“It’ll never happen again,” Damion replied.
Darrion has big expectations for Damion this upcoming fall, probably bigger than what Damion has for himself. Damion already graduated, but he’s looking at his Nebraska career as if he has two years remaining. We’ll see if evaluations change following the 2021 campaign.
If everything that’s been said comes to be true, they might.
Nebraska could use that consistent, every-down presence in the middle. That pain in the ass bully that keeps o-linemen from climbing.
“Every time you’re on that field, you’re never the one getting pushed back,” Darrion says. “I think he’s taken it personal. His mindset going into this year is just ‘Anybody who lines up across from me is gonna get this work every single snap.’”
Damion had 19 tackles and four tackles for loss a season ago. A slimmer, more nimble Damion surely would offer Tuioti more flexibility on the line to keep what was a pretty efficient player on the field more often.
Nebraska needs to keep improving its run defense, climbing from what was a top-half unit a season ago. It needs to put more pressure on the quarterback with its front seven. I’m interested in what kind of role Damion can play in that if he does in fact take that next step. It’d be a pretty significant development for defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and the rest of the staff.
“He sees it now,” Darrion says. “For the majority of our life, ask anybody who’s a better player, I always said my brother. He’s a natural born football player. He has the body for it, he’s got the mindset for it. I feel like in the long run he will be the better player. It was just he needed to see himself in that same light.
“I feel like he finally sees the bigger picture, he finally sees what he’s capable of.”
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.