For a fourth year, we’re counting down the 10 most intriguing Huskers. Earlier, I wrote about who would have earned spots 11-20 if the countdown was extended out and shared a look at the previous three groups of Huskers from 2018, ’19, and ’20.
The intent of this exercise is to highlight players who might have the largest impact on the upcoming season, one way or the other, with their play. It’s not a ranking of the best players on the team and it’s not even really a rundown of the most important players to accomplish X, Y, and Z. It’s as the name suggests: the most intriguing talents on the roster.
Things kicked off with Nick Henrich at No. 10 and Oliver Martin and No. 9. Then, No. 8 Quinton Newsome and No. 7 Gabe Ervin Jr. were added to the list. Last week, we added No. 6 Adrian Martinez and No. 5 Matt Sichterman to the group. Earlier this week saw Luke Reimer at No. 4. Up next…
No. 3: Damion Daniels
A dominant interior presence on the defensive line would change so much for Nebraska.
Nebraska ranked 30th nationally last season in stuff rate, a measure of the percentage of running back carries a defense stops at or behind the line of scrimmage. It ranked 23rd in power success rate, a measurement of a defense’s effectiveness in short-yardage situations. Its front seven ranked 40th among FBS fronts in havoc rate. And, as we know by now, Nebraska showed significant improvement in its run defense efficiency, leaping from one of the worst run-stopping units up into the top half of teams in a three-year span.
Under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, Nebraska has shown marked improvement each year. The hope is that improvement continues into 2021, but the question on my mind is whether this will be a little like losing weight. Because you have so much to lose in the beginning, it just falls off when you start really putting in the effort. Nebraska’s defense needed the right pieces and those pieces needed to be in the right places. Do things the right way and you’ll start seeing improvement when you’re one of the more problematic units in the country.
But as you start reaching the target goal, it’s harder and harder to shed pounds. Those last 15 or so are the hardest. Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ projections—which factor returning production and recruiting history among others—had Nebraska at No. 30, but for the first time under head coach Scott Frost, the defense was ahead of the offense. The Blackshirts, in Connelly’s system, project as the 19th-best unit in football next season.
These are projections, not what is actually going to happen. Last preseason Nebraska was projected 25th with the 10th-best offense in football and everyone in Lincoln knows how that turned out.
Nebraska was probably one of the 40 or 50 best defenses in college football last year. To make the leap into the top 25, where NU says it wants to be, is going to be harder than moving from lackluster to competent. The jump from good to great always is.
The Cornhuskers have better depth on the defensive side of the ball, which will help, but to make that next step, they will need individual leaps from guys in the rotation who were pretty good last year; those players need to become excellent.
“Everybody has to establish themselves,” line coach Tony Tuioti said this spring. “Nobody’s proven anything. … We haven’t achieved what we’ve wanted to. This is going into my third year, and every single day it burns me that we’re not where we’re supposed to be yet right now. That’s the kind of chip I have on my shoulder and my guys know that.”
This is where Damion Daniels comes in.
For four years, Daniels has been working on his game and his body. As a redshirt freshman in 2018, he had 12 tackles in 12 appearances. In 2019, he had 13 in 12, serving as the primary backup to his brother, Darrion, at nose tackle. In 2020, Damion made the jump from serviceable rotation player to strong starter. He had 19 tackles in eight games and four tackles for loss.
Damion averaged around 20 snaps a game last year, which was a step in the right direction. 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.’ Tuioti says he 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.
He’s been a 1-tech player who draws a double occasionally, but not immediately. Damion’s successes last year have him trending in the right direction. His TFLs came over a stretch of four consecutive games. Against Iowa, he had perhaps his best performance. He has the strength and tenacity to blow up any given play—it’s here that I’ll remind you of the Huskers’ power success marks—but just hasn’t had the endurance piece of it to operate at the same level often enough.
At his heaviest, the 6-foot-3 Texan was 340 pounds. Last year, he was 330. Now, Damion is down to about 315. As his brother went through the draft process, he passed along the info he was hearing from NFL scouts and coaches: NFL defensive lines aren’t looking for the same kind of lumbering 330-pounder anymore to anchor the middle of the defense.
As both NFL and college games have become pass-happy, defenses have gone multiple and nose tackles have had to develop some pass-rushing chops, lest they be replaced on passing downs.
That happened to Damion last year. Nebraska’s pass-rushing subpackages brought outside ‘backers up near the line of scrimmage and pinched Ben Stille and Casey Rogers into the middle, showing a four-man front with lots of athleticism.
Nebraska had good success out of those formations a year ago, particularly on third down late in the year, so those aren’t going away anytime soon (Chinander has always chaffed at the idea he’s a 3-4 coach only, answering back that he’s more multiple than anything), but Damion’s improvement in the middle could make them potentially more deadly if NU can win those standard downs even more often. (Nebraska ranked 44th on standard down success rate).
“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 recently.
“Now, our conversations about football … he’s trying to figure out how he can help impact the team in the biggest way.”
Part of that meant shedding weight this offseason.
“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 are you doing this late at night?’”
To which Damion would respond: “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,” Darrion continued. “He was always trying to do better.”
Jordon Riley is there in the middle, and should be able to provide Nebraska with a little more in his second season on campus. Nash Hutmacher, a second-year freshman, is also waiting in the wings.
But Damion stirs the drink at that spot for the Blackshirts.
If he can regularly see snap counts in the high 30s, mid-to-low 40s and not suffer any drop-off in play Nebraska could be in really good shape in 2021. Taking those last few steps are hard. Going from good to great isn’t easy. Damion, to his credit, has embraced that grind, though.
“Looking over the past years, I kind of can see how I burned gas a lot back in the day,” he said this spring. “One thing I’ve been focusing on is trying to get more conditioned and go more plays and take more reps than I used to do, to be that guy the coach can rely on to keep playing even when I’m tired, to keep pushing.”
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.