LINCOLN — Nebraska assistant Tony Tuioti has a room full of experienced defensive linemen.
What he wants is a consistent mindset from the group, where linemen “press the reset button” after each practice to gear up for the next one with the same energy and enthusiasm.
“It’s like ‘50 First Dates,’” Tuioti said, referencing a movie in which Drew Barrymore’s character suffers from short-term memory loss. “What happened the past day doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of what you do each and every day.”
Tuioti said NU’s defensive line has two “alpha males” in brothers Darrion and Damion Daniels. Darrion is a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State. Damion is a redshirt sophomore.
“That’s great to have,” Tuioti said. “That’s one thing we always try to find is a nose guard who’s a real war daddy, and those guys have that mentality. So they give us a chance to win up front, to dominate and win A gap to A gap.”
Tuioti said the Daniels brothers have leadership “in their blood,” especially Darrion, who was a captain at Oklahoma State. He’s been more vocal at practice.
So has Damian Jackson, the ex-Navy SEAL who walked on for the Huskers.
“He’s got the team in the palm of his hands,” Tuioti said of Jackson. “He’s a blue-collar guy who’s going to work hard and give everything he has.”
Senior twins Carlos and Khalil Davis, Tuioti said, are “athletic” and “really good players,” as well.
Tuioti said he’s trying to impress on each player that he has a skill useful to the defense, and Tuioti will try to find a way to use it. Sophomore Deontre Thomas — originally recruited for a 4-3 defense — is an example.
“He’s undersized to play a 4-technique for us,” Tuioti said of the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Thomas.
NU coaches ideally want their defensive ends to be closer to the size of Tate Wildeman (6-5, 275) and Brant Banks (6-7, 265). But Thomas’ stature can be an advantage, Tuioti said, when Nebraska uses its four-man pass rush. Plus, if Thomas is capable of playing with leverage in the run game — which his frame should allow him to do — he can help NU’s defense.
“He’s kind of slippery and he’s pretty quick,” Tuioti said. “We’ll find a way to get him on the field and maximize his talent and ability.”
Improved pass rush
If the first two weeks of spring practice are any indication, Nebraska’s defense has some playmakers, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said.
Chinander was upbeat Wednesday morning after another workout in which his unit was disruptive. Defensive backs snagged interceptions and pulled balls away from receivers. Players transitioned into different drills and formations “with ease” and got to the ball quicker than last year.
The Blackshirts are even pressuring the quarterback.
“Guys are doing a really good job rushing the passer right now, too,” Chinander said. “So I don’t know if that’s unexpected, but those are very pleasant things to see right away.”
Chinander mentioned the Davis siblings and junior Ben Stille among the tone-setters.
At outside linebacker, Chinander dubbed seniors Tyrin Ferguson and Alex “Ace” Davis the leaders, along with JoJo Domann, who plays the position in NU’s base defense. He said Breon Dixon “has a good skill set,” early enrollee Garrett Nelson is “a young guy that’s come along really good” and redshirt freshman walk-on Ryan Schommer, from Norfolk, has moved from defensive line to outside linebacker.
“They’re rushing the passer a lot better, and they’re kind of understanding pass rush,” Chinander said. “I think last year it was kind of, ‘Let’s try to line up and let’s try to run fast around somebody.’ And that’s not pass rush unless you’re one of those guys that can’t get touched.
“So I think they understand right now what they need to get done, what the offensive line is presenting them with, what their width has to do with the set of the tackle. All those type of things, I think they’re starting to click a little bit so they’re able to rush the passer a little better.”
» Junior inside linebacker Will Honas is participating in individual drills and during the noncontact portion of practices, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. He added that Honas is “probably ahead of schedule” in his recovery from a knee injury suffered last fall.
The junior college transfer played in four games for the Huskers, registering 15 tackles, before redshirting.
“We’ll see at the end of spring, maybe progress him a little bit,” Ruud said. “But we like where he’s at right now.”
» Ferguson said his weight has been “up and down” in college. He’s at 230 pounds now but has sometimes felt better playing at 225. Managing his body continues to be an underrated part of on-field success, he said.
“The grind never stops, man,” Ferguson said. “It’s not just in the film room, on the field. It’s nutrition and all those other good things, too.”
» Among the former Huskers at practice Wednesday were NFL draft hopefuls Stanley Morgan and Devine Ozigbo.
» Class of 2020 outside linebacker prospect Cullen Coleman took an unofficial visit to Nebraska on Wednesday. He’s a three-star prospect from Rye, New York.
» Domann now weighs 230 pounds, but his body composition is “way different” than it was when he arrived at Nebraska. He wants to add even more muscle for his hybrid outside linebacker/safety role that officially has its own name: Cinco. Domann said he’s the only one who plays the position.
“He’s built like a brick house,” outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said.
» Tuioti praised redshirt freshman defensive end Casey Rogers for his pass rush Wednesday. He said Rogers is still in the process of “trusting himself and trusting his fundamental technique.”
» Safety Deontai Williams said his better understanding of NU’s defense has made him “10 times better” this spring compared to last season, when Williams made plays but saw limited snaps because he felt “robotic” in his approach.
“I’m moving full speed because I know everything,” Williams said.
Chinander has seen Williams grow as a defender.
“It’s not just renegade football, it’s not intramural football right now anymore,” Chinander said. “It’s learning stuff within the scheme of the defense, playing within the scheme of the defense, but still playing with that same violence and intensity he had when he kind of didn’t know what he was doing.”