Over the last few weeks, we’ve been counting down the 10 Huskers with the highest intrigue factor heading into the 2019 season. We’ve now got only two names left to reveal. Here’s who we’ve covered so far:
- No. 10: Mike Williams, senior wide receiver
- No. 9: Jack Stoll, junior tight end
- No. 8: Cam Taylor, sophomore defensive back
- No. 7: JoJo Domann, junior linebacker
- No. 6: Dedrick Mills, junior running back
- No. 5: Collin Miller, junior inside linebacker
- No. 4: Cameron Jurgens, redshirt freshman center
- No. 3: Adrian Martinez, sophomore quarterback
Nebraska has pretty good College Football Playoff odds. Three of the four major preseason preview mags predicted the Huskers to win the Big Ten West. Nebraska is a national darling right now. The schedule prompts a lot of that. Star sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez doesn’t hurt either. But the question I’ve been posing all offseason long is this:
We generally know what Martinez and the offense are going to be. So, what’s the biggest change that needs to happen for Nebraska to, at the least, double its wins in 2019? (Because eight is the minimum the Huskers would need to get to in order to really be talking about winning the division.)
The answer I keep settling on is greatly-improved defensive line play.
Get ready, these numbers are a little unsightly.
This isn’t the pros, and Nebraska can’t just flip personnel because it sat bottom-of-the-barrel in a number of run-based defensive metrics last season. (Though, to be fair, Nebraska added a future impact player on the defensive line in Ty Robinson. But without enrolling early, expecting Robinson to have a significant enough impact in Year 1 to justify burning a redshirt might be expecting too much.)
So, the defensive line will focus on internal improvement from a lot of places. The Davis brothers, Carlos and Khalil, will look to take big jumps forward in their senior year. Junior Ben Stille will hope for his breakout. Redshirt sophomore Damion Daniels will look to find a consistent role. The group will be what it was in terms of faces.
Except for one. Damion’s brother, Darrion. The former 4-star recruit and longtime Oklahoma State starter took a graduate transfer to Lincoln to play his final season with his brother. But it’s not just a swan song final year of eligibility, the big defensive tackle has NFL aspirations.
And if Nebraska’s defense is going to take a sizable leap in Year 2 under head coach Scott Frost and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, it would stand to reason the elder Daniels brother would play a similarly sizable role in it.
Daniels played in 13 games as a true freshman for the Cowboys and was named the team’s best defensive newcomer. As a sophomore, he played another 13 games, logged 15 tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass break-up, one quarterback hurry and one blocked extra point. As a junior, he started 10 games. In his final year, he started the first four games before a finger injury cost him the rest of the season. In Daniels, Nebraska isn’t just getting some guy, it’s getting a legit difference-maker.
In Daniels’ first three seasons with the team, Oklahoma State went 30-9. Each year featured 10-win campaigns and appearances inside the AP top 10. Good teams, with good defenses that Daniels had roles on. He played with a future second-round NFL Draft pick in Emmanuel Ogbah, a guy he says he learned a lot from. In 2016, Daniels sophomore year, the Cowboys ranked 22nd in stuff rate. In 2017, with Daniels starting, they ranked 25th in stuff rate, 16th in opportunity rate and had the 36th-ranked run defense by S&P+.
In 2018, Daniels represented the Cowboys at Big 12 Media Days. He traveled with the Pokes to an early November game against Baylor despite being unavailable to play because head coach Mike Gundy felt his team needed one of their vocal leaders.
“Darrion is good for us,” Gundy said after the game, per the Tulsa World’s Mark Cooper. “He was leading our defense before he got hurt because he’s experienced, he’s a good player, he’s vocal, he backs up what he says.”
In a very short amount of time, Daniels has assumed a similar responsibility inside the Husker defensive line room. Khalil Davis calls him a natural leader, someone who doesn’t just talk to the rest of the line, but the entire defense. “He gets them going when we’re down,” Davis told me after the spring game. Senior linebacker Mo Barry says Daniels is just as good at opening up plays for others as he is making plays himself.
Center Cameron Jurgens calls him deceptively quick. Before Daniels got to college and bulked up his now-320-pound frame, he ran a 4.76 40.
“He’s a force up in the middle, him and his brother,” defensive end Casey Rogers added. “A gap to A gap, those two have it down to a perfect T. I think everyone’s comfortable with them in the A gaps.”
Line coach Tony Tuioti has said Darrion is exactly what Damion needed. The guy they affectionately call “Snacks,” Damion shouldn’t be out there for more than five consecutive plays if you want him at his most effective, Tuioti says, and Darrion being around afford Tuioti the ability to do exactly that.
The elder Daniels figures to be the first guy on the field in the middle of that defensive line. When he needs a rest, the younger Daniels brother comes in. Nebraska has an ideal set-up in that regard.
Throughout the spring, Nebraska’s defense took it to the offense. “There’s been times where we couldn’t move the ball at all,” Frost said after the spring game. How much of that is a retooled offensive line with a young center and how much of that is a re-energize defensive line with Darrion Daniels in its heart? Even if it’s some combination of both, Daniels provides reason for excitement about what the Blackshirts up front could look like in 2019.
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.