Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

The Loss of Damion Daniels Leaves Big Shoes To Fill At Nose Tackle, Who Will Emerge in 2022?

December 06, 2021

While much of the offseason focus for the fan base at Nebraska is trained on the offensive side of the ball—and for good reasons; the new hire of receivers coach Mickey Joseph; the vacancies at offensive coordinator and coaching roles for the offensive line, quarterbacks and running backs; quarterback Adrian Martinez entering his name in the transfer portal—Saturday brought the announcement that Damion Daniels was forgoing his extra year of eligibility and declaring for the NFL draft.

Daniels moving on to the next stage of his life is anything but surprising. He’s spent five years at Nebraska and is coming off his best season, one that saw a career-high 33 tackles and two tackles for a loss. It’s time to strike while the iron is hot.

While Daniels didn’t have eye-opening statistics, it wasn’t his job to accumulate them. In Erik Chinander’s style of defense, Daniels did the dirty work in the trenches as a nose tackle. He routinely took on double teams from offensive linemen, which mucked things up and cleared alleys for linebackers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich, who nearly became the first Husker duo to have 100 tackles in a season since 2003 when current inside ‘backers coach Barrett Ruud and Demorrio Williams did it. Reimer finished with a team-high 108 tackles while Henrich was one tackle away from triple digits with 99.

When Reimer racked up a career-best 16 tackles against Buffalo in September, Daniels was one of his teammates who he gave credit to.

“We’re always fighting to play behind Boogie (Daniels). He’s a beast, and that whole front, the defensive line, they’re a really good group. Coach T (Tony Tuioti) has them playing at a high level,” Reimer said.

The Huskers will be without five of their top-10 tacklers from 2021 as JoJo Domann, Marquel Dismuke, Deontai Williams, Ben Stille and now Daniels are all moving on. Specifically along the defensive line, Nebraska is losing Daniels, Stille and Deontre Thomas, an undersized but valuable player.

Tuioti’s room was instrumental in the defense’s improvement in 2021. The Blackshirts allowed 22.7 points per game (if you take out the 43 points that opponents scored on the Huskers that wasn’t the fault of the defense, that averages goes down to 19.0) in 2021, which is better than the 29.4 in 2020, 27.8 in 2019 and 31.4 in 2018, Chinander’s first year. The Huskers had great performances against some of the best teams and players they played, too. Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III—a Heisman Trophy hopeful—was held to 61 yards rushing and needed an overtime period to get there. Ohio State’s freshman phenom, TreVeyon Henderson, was held to 92.

Though the run defense wasn’t perfect—there were busts against Oklahoma, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa—the Blackshirts still saw improvement in key areas. They held opponents to 146.9 rushing yards, better than the 169.5 from 2020, the 188 from 2019 and the 195.7 from 2018. Opponents’ rushing yards per carry dipped to 4.16, the lowest in the Chinander era.

Daniels, the 6-foot-3, 325-pound mountain in the middle, was a big part of the improvement. While his loss stings, it opens the door for other players looking for an opportunity for playing time.

There are still plenty of talented players in Tuioti’s room, including Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers, who will both step into bigger roles in 2022. Robinson, suited to play more on the inside like Daniels did, had one of his best games of his young career against Iowa, where he recorded three tackles, one for a loss and a sack. And in this day and age of college football, there will always be the possibility of an addition to the defensive line through the transfer portal or junior college.

Two of the top candidates to help fill Daniels’ role could be Jordan Riley and Nash Hutmacher, who both had backup roles this season. They each provide the bulk needed to withstand Big Ten trench warfare.

Riley is a 6-6, 310-pounder who began his career at North Carolina before transferring to Garden City (Kansas) Community College then landing at Nebraska. He had seven tackles with one for loss in 10 games this season. In the season finale against Iowa, Riley showed what he can do by holding his ground against a double team and creating a wall to stop running back Tyler Goodson:

Hutmacher, nicknamed “Polar Bear” by his teammates, stands 6-4 and 325 pounds. The second-year player and South Dakota native played in 11 games and, like Riley, was on the Huskers’ goal-line and heavy-personnel packages. Hutmacher showed good things at Wisconsin when he did get on the field, like the example below where he wins his one-on-one battle with Badger right guard Jack Nelson (#79) and gets in on the tackle of running back Braelon Allen:

Tuioti also has intriguing—but young and unproven—options to work with to help fill Daniels’ absence. Mosai Newsom (6-4, 285) will be in his fourth year at Nebraska next season and could provide depth. There’s also Marquis Black (6-3, 315), who will be in his third year in Lincoln, and a pair of freshmen from the 2021 class in Ru’Quan Buckley (6-5, 290) and Jailen Weaver (6-8, 320), who needed this season—and most likely another—to develop their bodies and stamina for Big Ten play.

There’s no doubt that the loss of Daniels will hurt the defensive line room. But with Robinson, Rogers—and potentially Riley and Hutmacher—in the fold, the Huskers have solid pieces to work with for 2022.

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