LINCOLN, Neb. — The proof for DaiShon Neal was in the pictures, the ones Nebraska strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval took of him at the start of the Cornhuskers’ offseason training grind.
And especially the ones Duval took toward the end of it.
“I was about 275 [pounds] coming back [to campus] and then when we bought into what Coach Duval and Coach [Scott] Frost have been teaching us, I began to hit 280, started to lean out more,” Neal recalled.
“And [Duval] showed me my pictures. I remember I had a 6-pack coming in, love handles all trimming down, back muscles coming out more … cut bigger in my chest.”
The junior defensive tackle weighed himself a few days before the Huskers’ 2018 spring game: 292.
“But I feel like I’m 275.”
He played like it Saturday, too.
The former Omaha Central standout was hell on wheels Saturday before a record crowd at Memorial Stadium, racking up a pair of sacks for the White defense and recovering a fumble, a well of potential — a 6-foot-7, bad-ass well — finally being tapped.
If Daishon Neal can bring this during the season that DL will be that much better.
— #FrostEra ❄️ (@Jason_Wacker) April 21, 2018
“I saw him get better,” Frost said after the contest, a 49-9 Red victory over the White. “I think he got a lot better in the winter, getting stronger and getting leaner. And he’s got the body type we’re looking for at that position. We just need him to be productive.
“A lot of guys on our team weren’t in good enough shape, still aren’t in good enough shape for the pace we want to play at. But DaiShon certainly has the talents and the gifts to be a good player for us and make plays.”
The Texas-born lineman was aggressive, decisive and confident on Saturday. Those were three traits he’d lacked as a sophomore last fall, when Nebraska switched from the 4-3 scheme under Mark Banker that he’d been recruited to play end for to whatever the expletive Bobby Diaco was throwing out there, week after week.
— #FrostEra ❄️ (@Jason_Wacker) November 4, 2017
“I was off, I’ll say that,” said Neal, who appeared in 12 games in 2017, recording a tackle at Purdue. “I told my dad, I had to get used to it. It was hard for me to learn.
“Last spring, I was at end. And when we came back to [preseason workouts], we switched positions, so we all learned different spots.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ve been practicing at end this whole time, now I’ve got to go to the 3-technique [tackle], I’ve got to learn this.’ ”
‘I always felt like, me, personally, I didn’t know if I was good enough to go out there and do what I’ve been trained to do my whole life. With this coaching staff, they actually put trust in me to go out there.’
— Nebraska defensive lineman DaiShon Neal
So what held you back?
“Me,” the Nebraska defensive lineman replied.
“It was always me. I had to learn how to play defensive tackle. … I had to learn from [teammates] Carlos [Davis] and Khalil [Davis] how to play 3-technique. So I took me a long time to get adjusted to it.
“I was used to, my whole life, only have to worry about the tackle and tight end. Now I’ve got to worry about a center, a guard, and a tackle all being in front of me, and I have to be able to learn how to read blocks much faster. Everything happens fast. I took me a while to get used to that.”
He’s used to chaos now, more used to the speed. And way more used to dishing it out instead of taking it. The Nebraska defender flashed one killer swim move to power past Jerald Foster in the first quarter on Saturday to snuff one drive with a sack of Tristan Gebbia. He flashed another swim move, this time on Brenden Jaimes, on a sack of Gebbia that ended the first half.
“I always felt like, me, personally, I didn’t know if I was good enough to go out there and do what I’ve been trained to do my whole life,” Neal said. “With this coaching staff, they actually put trust in me to go out there.
“[Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander] was telling me, ‘You’re the biggest dude on the team, you’ve got to go out there and perform. Go out there and show what you can do.’ So I trust myself more as far as that.”
If Saturday is Neal’s new normal, that kind of trust could well become a 2-way street.