Damion Daniels talks to press
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Two Huskers Who Have Proven Welcome Surprises So Far in Camp

October 11, 2020

Over the course of the last two weeks, we’ve gotten to hear from every assistant coach on staff for Nebraska, as well as nine Husker players. Much has been said. Much has been written. We go into these things with a roadmap in mind, but sometimes the conversations take unexpected turns. That has certainly been the case so far.

Here are two guys who seem to have made the most of their summers. I expected we’d hear about both, but to the degree we have so far? They’ve been welcome surprises.

Running Back

Seven or so months ago, when folks talked about Ronald Thompkins, it was mostly just hopeful. “If you get anything from him, that’s a win.” The “if” was always heavily emphasized. Rahmir Johnson was the No. 2 at the end of 2019, but there was a question as to whether he’d hold onto that spot for the 2020 season. As is normally the case around signing days and their arrivals on campus, the freshmen were all the rage. Marvin Scott III and Sevion Morrison are both incredibly intriguing first-years (for different reasons, too), and a lot of us sort of just skipped over that 2019 running back class in favor of the 2020 class.

I did this. When we did a depth chart projection around springtime, I pegged Morrison as the guy to grab the No. 2 spot behind senior Dedrick Mills.

One thing I’m finding myself thinking about more and more as the season approaches is what that No. 2 role will actually look like. Nebraska hasn’t really had consistent running back usage over the last two years, so it’d be hard to just look straight to the box scores. It also saw a significant jump in overall rushing totals year-over-year; NU averaged a shade under 39 carries a game in 2018 (8th in the conference) and then 45 in 2019 (2nd).

Mills averaged 11.9 attempts a game last season. Over the last three games, that number jumped to 17.7. That would seem to be the one to base 2020 projections off of, right? Maybe Devine Ozigbo’s last seven games in 2018 is the bottom half of the range we can work from. He averaged 14.9 carries over those games.

Neither are huge numbers for a starter, and those time spans were deemed to be the games Mills and Ozigbo were “turned loose.” With a few more capable bodies last year, head coach Scott Frost elected to spread the ball around more, too. Quarterback Adrian Martinez was at 14.4 carries a game in 2019 and 12.7 in 2018. Wideout Wan’Dale Robinson got 8.8 a game and departed running back Maurice Washington got 7.1.

Matt Lubick thinks the offensive line is a strength of the entire team, which, in theory, would lend to a more ground-focused attack. We’re going to have to wait until games start to know for sure, but my money is on NU at least hitting for around 45 again.

Let’s just say that happens, and Mills averages right around what he got over those last three…

(Sidebar: I wonder if it’ll climb closer to 20, and it’s easy to rationalize bumping him up over 20 carries a game, but only 14 qualified running backs hit 20 in 2019, and only eight of them belonged to Power Five teams. Only 10, four of them P5 runners, are hitting that threshold so far this season. It’s a lot to ask.)

…while Martinez stays right around his two-year average of 13. We’re at 31 from those two starters. That leaves 14 runs on the board.

Figure NU works in a handful of runs for wideouts each game (something they’re still going to do) and you’re probably left with, what, 10 or 11 carries now? Would seven or eight be what you could expect from the No. 2 back? That leaves four-ish for Luke McCaffrey (*Mario Verduzco hurls something at my head*).

Under 10 a game seems like a perfect role for a guy everyone is cautiously optimistic about. You get excitement couched with talks of a pitch count.

Ronald Thompkins should be firmly on everyone’s radar. Because what we’ve heard about him so far would suggest he’s firmly in play for a role this season.

He has been featured in practice footage running around without a brace on his knee, which is a big deal. Thompkins (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) was injured in high school and then suffered a setback during the rehab process last season. Running back coach Ryan Held has, on several occasions, said that injury helped Nebraska land him. If not for it, Held has said, he might have had a power in the south to call home.

“Ronald’s been through a lot now,” Held said this week. “There was a point where you never knew if he was going to be able to come back. He’s really persevered. He’s fought through some adverse times.

“He was as talented as anyone in America coming out of high school. Whether he would play or not, nobody knew. He’s really relied on his perseverance. He’s had good days and bad days just like anyone going through that process, but I’ve been very impressed with him. He’s had a really good attitude.”

Tight end coach Sean Beckton, who had a hand in recruiting Thompkins from Georgia, called the second-year man a “pleasant surprise.” There’s a lot of talent there.

“You guys will get an opportunity to see a kid who really has worked extremely hard to get himself in this position,” Beckton said.

The recruiting director from Thompkins’ high school has gone on record saying he was the best player on a Grayson HS team that featured 5-star Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe and 13 other P5 players.

“He reminds me of Kenjon Barner that was at Oregon,” Watson said. “He can play any position and doesn’t have to come off the field. Third down, he can stay out there. He is good at picking up the blitz and just does so many things well.”

In a secondary role, that kind of flexibility would seem to mean good things. Thompkins can give Dedrick Mills a spell and Nebraska seemingly wouldn’t have to alter play-calling.

Frost said this week NU is soon going to have to settle on a No. 2 and No. 3 guy in practice so it can start splitting up the reps appropriately. That Thompkins is firmly in that battle for the No. 2 spot is a feel-good story on its own.

Nose Tackle

It sure seems like Damion Daniels worked his tail off this offseason.

With his older brother now off to the NFL, Nebraska has a massive need in the middle of that defensive line. In this scheme, having a stalwart there is huge. It frees up the linebackers to make the plays they need to make. Darrion Daniels didn’t post huge numbers in his lone season in Lincoln—ninth on the team in tackles, eighth in tackles for loss—but his impact was still felt.

One of the things Nebraska was hoping would happen off the field seemingly has: Darrion provided Damion with a spark.

“I’m really proud of Damion,” line coach Tony Tuioti said this week. “He knows that he’s got to get himself in shape and he’s doing everything he can to do that. I think he’s pushed his threshold to a point where he can probably play six, seven, eight snaps (in a row) for us. He’s doing everything he can in conditioning after practice.”

Tuioti has said in the past Damion’s pitch count was closer to four before he needed a breather.

“(He) shows up every single day,” Tuioti said. “He’s been having some great practices for us, being dominant at the point-of-attack. That’s what we need out of him. We need that veteran leadership from him. I’m just glad that he’s been able to step up to the plate and know that, hey, it’s his time to lead and bring the young guys with him.”

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, back in March, said that getting more out of Damion would be huge for the defense. “The 16 snaps he’ll give you are really good,” he said then. But Chinander added that they would ideally like to have him for anywhere between 30 and 40.

“I feel like I have a lot of room for improvement,” Damion said this week. “Looking over the past years, I kind of can see how I burned gas a lot back in the day. 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.”

He’s stepping up to the plate in other ways, too. Second-year defensive lineman Ty Robinson named Damion as a leader for the room. Darrion was a captain and a vocal presence who was unafraid to call a guy out if it was warranted. Damion seems to have taken notes.

“If somebody’s doing something wrong, I get on them a little bit,” he said. “I know you didn’t come to Nebraska to be average. You’re at Nebraska for a reason.”

The defense has some things to prove this season. It needs to be better. It wants to be better. But that front seven is needing to replace four starters from the 2019 team, no small task.

Damion’s a big man.

If he’s able to fill that same role his older brother played last season, if Nebraska doesn’t have to cycle through guys in the middle searching for the hot hand each week, that’d be even bigger.

Said Tuioti: “Snacks”—Damion’s nickname—“is a guy that if we’re going into a war and going into fight, I want to go fight with Snacks.”

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