NU's John Parrella, Blackshirts seek defensive line depth through versatility behind an established first unit

Nebraska defensive line coach John Parrella is seeking depth behind a top defensive line group with a combined 58 games of experience. 

LINCOLN — DaiShon Neal insists he doesn’t get excited for games. Yes, he knows it sounds funny coming from a redshirt sophomore with two career tackles.

Maybe it’s his background — he was born in Cleveland and raised in Houston before graduating from Omaha Central — but the Nebraska defensive end isn’t fond of celebrating when he does something he’s supposed to do. He’d rather act like he’s been there before, even if “there” to this point is nine games on special teams and serving as a reserve.

“I’m not looking for a pat on the back for a tackle or a sack — it’s just what’s expected of me,” Neal said. “I just feel better when I actually execute something and we get off the field. It’s really expected of us. We try not to (say), ‘Oh, I made a big tackle.’ Whoopty woo. It’s what’s expected of us, so I try to keep a level head and then stay humble about it.”

One line Nebraska defensive line coach John Parrella often delivers to his players is: “You gotta have a sickness to want it.” Neal said that’s truer in practices than games as those Huskers in the trenches continue to work on their new three-man front in physically demanding fashion.

NU’s three projected starters up front are confirmed cases of this football illness. Junior Mick Stoltenberg — who moved from defensive tackle to nose in the spring — and ends Freedom Akinmoladun and Carlos Davis all started games last season and combined for 81 tackles.

As for everybody else? Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said they’re showing symptoms.

“I’m pleased with the guys; they’re trying hard,” Diaco said. “They’re physically capable players. They care a whole bunch, and they’re a lot of fun to work with. I love coming to work and working with them. They’re really a joy.”

The goal for coaches before the season opener is to determine where the depth will come from. Neal and sophomore Khalil Davis join junior nose tackle Peyton Newell on the second unit, but the trio own a combined zero starts and seven career tackles in 25 games. That’s a big drop from the starters’ collective total of 58 games played (30 starts) and 104 tackles.

A batch of newcomers are also coming on strong early in fall camp. Newell said freshman Deontre Thomas is working behind him at nose, while Damion Daniels and 25-year-old Damian Jackson — a former Navy SEAL — have also earned praise from players and coaches. Coach Mike Riley singled out redshirt freshman and Ashland-Greenwood grad Ben Stille last weekend as another lineman who has made a jump.

“I think the potential’s there,” Parrella said. “We just gotta keep developing that and we’ll find out here the next couple weeks where we’re going to settle in and with the young players, what they’re going to end up doing. I’m excited about our group and about their work ethic, how hard they’re practicing and their willingness to get better. We just gotta keep doing that every day.

“Depth’s always big in any defense. You’re one play away from a crisis, so to speak. So we’re just developing our young players and hoping that we can get them game ready so we have plenty of hats ready to go.”

On Tuesday, Diaco spoke of devising “participation patterns” — a detailed approach for how and when defenders will be on the field during games — and Newell said it’s up to players to impact those plans during practice.

Correct technique helps, and so does an ability to man any position across the line, Newell said. But it boils down to making plays. Doing “your one-11th.”

“I know as a whole, the defensive unit, we’re all excited,” Newell said. “We’re trying to get the Blackshirts back to where they were at.”

Depth through versatility is Nebraska’s approach, Khalil Davis said, adding that it’s not difficult to move around on the line once one spot is learned. Neal said he’s seen his “football IQ” grow after trying the different spots, and the frequent movement has strengthened belief among players that anyone can get the job done.

So feel free to critique the line’s lack of game experience, Neal said. Just know that doesn’t mean a lack of options for Nebraska beyond the established starting unit.

“Whoever they put out there on the field, we know we all trust them to go out and execute,” Neal said. “And we all rotate very well. We want fresh legs every time, and I like how Coach Diaco is doing that. He’s going to make sure the guys that get tired, we’ll have the best person out there on the field with the freshest legs out there every time. I like how we got a rotation going, and the depth should be good.”

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