Where's the beef? For Nebraska, it's up front on defense — and they can be a bit nasty

Size matters up front in the Big Ten, and Nebraska should fare better in that department on defense this year with the help of 680 combined pounds of brothers Darrion Daniels, left, and Damion Daniels.

LINCOLN — The older brother ran over to the sideline, frustrated.

They’re holding, Nebraska nose tackle Darrion Daniels said to his younger brother, Damion, during a Husker practice. He was speaking of NU’s offensive line.

Then knock their hands off, Damion said back.

If I knock them off, they’ll just hold again, Darrion said.

Then hit ’em, Damion said. And that was about the time the 6-foot-3, 340-pound Damion needed to spell the 6-4, 340-pound Darrion for a few snaps.

“So I went in, and our offensive lineman grabbed me — I was running to the ball — and I knocked his hand off,” Damion said Thursday. “He came running with me, still holding, so I just turned around, and I just jawed him. That was the first scuffle of spring. First day in full pads.”

Another Husker defensive lineman, Khalil Davis, loomed just above Daniels on a stairway as Daniels told the story.

“Shamus is gone, so I’m saying let’s keep it to two minutes,” Davis said, joking.

Shamus McKnight, the Nebraska media relations staffer best known for wrapping up player interviews, apparently has a successor.

Khalil’s twin, Carlos, was finishing lunch a few feet away. Deontre Thomas — so different, Carlos said, you’ll never meet anyone like him — was next to Daniels. Ben Stille was at the press conference podium in the interview room, speaking to reporters.

The defensive linemen generally travel in a troupe — giant men full of humor and strength — and appear to form the strongest position group on the team. Damion tends to get more of a watchful eye than most linemen. He could be the most talented one of all — a tank in the middle of the field with a giant lower body and major explosion off the ball. But he’s still young — he doesn’t turn 20 until Nebraska’s season opener — and, until this offseason, hadn’t really molded his body for more than a few snaps per drive.

Khalil and Carlos stayed on him last season, but when Darrion — the Oklahoma State graduate transfer — showed up, well, Darrion came specifically to Nebraska to play with Damion. He came, too, to get his younger brother in shape.

“He’s hard on me with conditioning,” Damion said. “I don’t joke around and play in the weight room. But conditioning, my brother wants me to go that extra rep, carry my attitude from the weight room onto the field.”

Darrion Daniels

Darrion Daniels has brought a spark to the Huskers since arriving in spring. “He’s brought a spark to that D-line, a sense of accountability to that D-line and the whole defense,” NU coach Scott Frost said. “He’s going to be a real asset, and I’m not just talking about on the field.”

When the two went home to Dallas for summer break, they woke at 7 a.m. each day to run. (Damion had 2 p.m. in mind.) When Damion would watch film of himself, he could see the difference between his effort on the first three plays and the next three. He was getting tired. And it burned Darrion that Damion was viewed as a guy good for only three downs.

But that’s what happens when you’re 347 pounds as a 17-year-old true freshman, as Damion was when he arrived at NU in 2017. He had no idea what his body fat composition was because NU’s former strength and conditioning staff “didn’t even do that.”

“But I was big, man,” he said. He redshirted his first year at Nebraska. He did not appear to get smaller during Mike Riley’s final, failed season.

He looks different now. He’s down to 337, and it’s not so much the weight as how he’s reshaped it. He has reduced his body fat by 6 percentage points since last season — which was itself an improvement over 2017 — and simply looks different. The size has shifted from his belly up to his chest and shoulders, which is more in line with Darrion, whose broad shoulders jut out like a wide load on the Interstate.

The two are competing for the starting nose tackle job.

“My brother knows I’m not just going to give it to him,” Damion said. “We’re both alphas.”

Damion Daniels

Sophomore defensive lineman Damion Daniels could be a symbol of an improved Nebraska D-line. Teaming up with his older brother Darrion, a transfer from Oklahoma State, Damion is now in the perfect shape to excel.

And lifelines for Carlos Davis, a big man who, nevertheless, is glad to inch back over from nose tackle to end, where he feels more at home.

“I’m really excited — the most I’ve ever been excited,” Davis said. “We have two true noses. Damion demands two. Darrion demands two. You single-block one of those two, the play’s over. And you got me and Khalil back at the edge, just head huntin’.”

The Davis twins will have company. Stille, for one. He’s packed on muscle and more weight. Thomas for another. That makes six defensive linemen.

The mystery man makes seven. That would be Jahkeem Green, the four-star junior college commit who pledged to NU in April, then visited at least one more school, Texas Tech, and has gone back to his native South Carolina to finish his college classes. Grades post next week. Presuming Green makes them, the 6-5, 315-pound junior arrives after that. The sum total of his communication with local media about any of this has been a single word: “Nebraska.”

Nebraska hasn’t had as mysterious a player since Randy Gregory, who in 2013 left Arizona Western for his parents’ house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to finish his schooling. He drank three gallons of milk every five days at home and arrived just before training camp in elite shape. That 2013 line — featuring Gregory, Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine, Avery Moss and Greg McMullen — was Nebraska’s best since joining the Big Ten. Four NFL players. The second-best line, 2015, featured Collins and Valentine as juniors. Both left after that season for the NFL.

NU hasn’t held teams to fewer than four yards per carry since. Carlos Davis, who redshirted that 2015 season, doesn’t hesitate to suggest the 2019 group can match any previous production.

“I think we can be better than that group,” Davis said. “Those guys played three years and left. We’ve got more experience.”

And a couple of 340-pound Daniels brothers. Damion, who had 12 tackles last season, is confident his competition with Darrion will give the line a needed boost. Damion had embraced Nebraska’s new culture before Darrion arrived, but having that extra prod from family has made a difference.

“I’m a way better player than I was back in December,” Damion said.

Reporter - Nebraska athletics

Sam covers Nebraska football, recruiting, women's basketball and more for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @swmckewonOWH. Email: SMcKewon@owh.com

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