Darrion Daniels has earned respect quickly since he arrived at Nebraska as a graduate transfer defensive tackle from Oklahoma State.
So much so, in fact, that he was voted a captain by his teammates last month before the season started. That doesn’t happen without a widespread feeling about what a player brings to a program, not only on the field but off it.
If you’re looking for charter members of the Darrion Daniels fan club among Huskers, though, you might start with junior inside linebacker Collin Miller.
“I can’t thank him enough for coming here,” Miller said this week. “I know he wanted to play with (younger brother) Damion, but him coming here was a great addition. Big, strong guy, real physical, real athletic for his size. When you see these defensive linemen holding up these offensive linemen and those gaps just start to widen up and you just kind of see the ball clear and you can just play fast, because you know you've got this D-lineman here, it helps us a lot. …
“I’m just glad he came to Nebraska because he’s making my life real easy.”
Daniels is one large piece — literally, at 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds — of a Husker defense that through three games is among the country’s most stingy against the run.
There are many factors, among them defensive line coach Tony Tuioti’s fresh ideas and scheme tweaks, improved tackling and awareness across the board in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, improved strength and conditioning, and improved play from linebackers like inside trio Miller, Mohamed Barry and Will Honas. The list goes on and on.
The results have followed, with the caveat that much larger tests loom.
To date, here are how the Huskers’ three opponents fared on the ground:
- South Alabama: 44 attempts for 83 yards.
- Colorado: 37 for 89.
- Northern Illinois: 32 for 74.
That’s good for an overall 2.18 yards per carry allowed, which checks in No. 6 in the Big Ten but No. 12 overall nationally.
"That's too much for us,” Daniels said. “We don't want teams to run the ball at all.”
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USA, CU and NIU check in at Nos. 81, 86 and 123 in the country, respectively, in rushing yards per attempt for the season, though it’s fair to point out that the Husker defense has at least something to say about each of those rankings.
Illinois is tied with South Alabama at No. 81 nationally, though standout junior Reggie Corbin had only six carries through the Illini’s first two games before rushing for 144 and a touchdown last week.
Steven M. Sipple and Parker Gabriel talk Huskers, preview Saturday’s game against Illinois and take questions.
Ohio State checks in No. 17 and comes to town next weekend, so the task is getting taller for Nebraska. But so far, the Huskers have been up to the test.
“This conference is an NFL conference,” Barry said. “For me it’s the linemen. You’re going to face the best linemen in the nation. The lineman play in the Big Ten is second to none. You’re going to face great backs and great linemen each week, and that’s the big thing. We have to stop the run.
“This is how we prove it with Illinois. We have to stop the run, and that’s our challenge this week.”
Barry has seen the other side of the coin, too, in his career. Nebraska was No. 107 in rushing yards per allowed per attempt in 2018 (5.0) and No. 124 in 2017 (5.57). This year, he says, the defensive linemen in front of him aren’t just taking up more of the offensive line’s attention. The group is also making more plays behind the line of scrimmage.
“If teams want to climb guards and centers (to the linebacker level), which they’ve been doing lately, now these defensive linemen aren’t playing. They’re making TFLs,” Barry said. “You can’t just climb to me and expect nothing to happen in the backfield.”
The defensive linemen have combined for four non-sack tackles for loss so far this season after 10 in 12 games last fall.
The formula is working so far. Through three games, Northern Illinois’ Jordan Nettles’ 22-yard scamper stands as the only 20-plus-yard rush the Huskers have allowed. That’s going to change eventually — perhaps this week against a back like Corbin, who is averaging 7.5 per carry in limited action so far — but Daniels said the defense’s challenge remains the same.
“The challenge for us is this upcoming game, because they've got some great guys in the backfield and shifty guys that are pretty fast, so it's really going to be a challenge for us to get our hands on them and get them down,” he said. “But we take a lot of pride in that (yards per carry) number, and we expect to keep it low for the rest of the year."