DALLAS — Damion Daniels stands at a lectern in front of a full high school gym and national television audience. This is his moment.
Daniels is a football player. Always has been.
Physical gifts helped him start fast, and a competitive family kept him going. He fits right into a macho sport as the guy who once broke his hand on an opponent’s facemask during a playoff game as a junior, then told a trainer to tape it so he could go back in.
But in front of everyone Feb. 1 — national signing day — Daniels does something startling for a 6-foot-2, 330-pound defensive tackle. He cries.
A few seconds later he pulls out a gray and black flat-billed cap with “Huskers” embroidered in red across the front and breaks into a tearful grin.
“When I chose Nebraska, it just felt good,” Daniels said later. “I cried because I just knew I had to start over. I’m leaving my family, my nephew, my parents, everybody.”
Graduation at Dallas’ Bishop Dunne High School is May 26, and Daniels is heading north about a week later. Waiting for him will be a chance to play right away.
NU coaches told the 17-year-old — he turns 18 Aug. 31, two days before the season opener against Arkansas State — he has the tools and frame to play nose tackle in the team’s new 3-4 defensive scheme.
Dunne offensive coordinator and strength coach Myron Hawthorne says Daniels offers the kind of size and force that win trench battles. He can squat 525 pounds but also runs a 5.2-second 40-yard dash and does front flips.
“I don’t know what the depth chart is like up there at Nebraska,” Hawthorne said, “but I know he can go up and start when he gets there.”
‘Baby D’ grows up
Daniels was 5 when his flag-football career came to an end.
Like much of his football experience, this story involves his older brother, Darrion, who will be a junior defensive tackle at Oklahoma State in the fall. The elder sibling was 7 and not interested in hitting a player during a practice.
The boys’ father was no stranger to life on the line. Tony Daniels was a 250-pound All-America D-lineman at Texas Tech in the mid-1990s and taught his kids about technique and competition from a young age. In this moment, why not stoke a sibling rivalry to make a point?
Tony Daniels called Damion over from the adjacent flag field.
“My father took my flags off and took my brother’s pads and put them on me,” Damion said. “He said, ‘All you gotta do is when I blow the whistle, you just go hit them.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He blew the whistle and I ran up and hit them. Ever since then I’ve just been playing football.”
Damion and Darrion couldn’t play in Pop Warner leagues — they were too young to compete on older teams and too big for their respective age groups — and instead joined a local select program. The younger Daniels often played against athletes two years his senior, doing more than holding his own.
Starting as a 13-year-old high school freshman wasn’t a steep transition. He had crisp footwork thanks to years of playing soccer and sound technique thanks to his father. Former Dunne safety Payton Hendrix — now playing the same position at Texas Tech — nicknamed the young lineman “Baby D” to differentiate him from his older brother.
Damion says with a laugh that he often took a nap on the couch when college recruiters stopped by the Daniels home to visit Darrion. He knew his own time would come, but it was also his way of ribbing his brother that not everyone thought he was such a big deal.
Parents Tony and Rhonda come from large athletic families that include the likes of former NFL receiver Roy Williams and a number of current college players. Competition is still a daily part of their lives.
“We go to war every day. We argue every day,” Tony Daniels said with a smile. “It’s always something. If somebody don’t know something, we Google it. Somebody’s got to be wrong.”
Jokester, recruiter, homecoming king
“The whole world was after him and we’re real blessed to get him,” Nebraska defensive line coach John Parrella said with a tone of relief in his voice during a signing day broadcast shortly after Damion Daniels announced his decision.
A glance at the big man’s offer list of nearly 30 schools — including the likes of Michigan, USC, Texas A&M, Texas, Florida and LSU — explains why. ESPN rated Daniels as a four-star recruit and the No. 21 defensive tackle nationally while 247Sports, Rivals and Scout assigned him three stars. He finished an all-state senior season with 78 tackles (26 for loss) while mixing in nine sacks and three forced fumbles.
Colorado and Texas-San Antonio were his other finalists, but Daniels also looked “beyond football” in his decision. He wants to coach some day, and Mike Riley has helped former players achieve that dream. Pursuing a degree in kinesiology is also possible in Lincoln.
“It’s Nebraska; everything I need is right there,” Daniels said. “It felt like home when I went up there.”
Said Tony Daniels: “I think the fan base got him. And the coaches talked to him — it wasn’t just one coach. They don’t have to look behind their back at a piece of paper to see what kid they’re getting ready to talk to. Everybody knew his name, and that’s always a good feeling.”
Damion says he knew for sure Nebraska was his choice in December, but waited to announce because he didn’t want to risk going back on his word. Since he signed, he’s been an avid recruiter of touted Dunne teammates such as consensus four-star defensive lineman Calvin Avery (Class of 2018) as well as five-star safety Brian Williams and four-star athlete Marquez Beason (2019). All made unofficial visits to Memorial Stadium for the spring game, with Beason committing to the Huskers.
Chans Jones sees daily the influence Daniels has on people. A Dunne junior-to-be and offensive lineman with an offer from Central Florida, he went against Daniels in practice — “He don’t take no plays off. He has so many moves, you don’t know what’s coming” — and sees him in the school hallways. Daniels is the one straightening ties on little kids, the one voted homecoming king.
Jones laughs about the time Daniels started a middle school basketball game with football on the brain. He tackled a player driving to the hoop.
“He’s hilarious,” Jones said. “He’s like a big Kevin Hart. He has a story for everything, whether it’s true or not.”
“Baby D” isn’t one to hide his softer side. He tears up talking about his late maternal grandfather, Robert Jackson. He can’t carry a tune the way he carries his weight, but it doesn’t stop him from singing in the church choir. His pediatrician even tells him he has another couple of growth spurts coming and could reach anywhere from 6-4 to 6-6.
If the impact he makes is proportionate to his size, Daniels and the Huskers won’t be surprised.
“He’s gonna help us at some point,” Parrella said. “Hopefully right away (he’ll) come in and at least, if he’s not starting, can be (in) a backup role and help our defensive line. His size and speed and toughness is what we’re looking for up front. We’re obviously fired up to have him.”