Next Generation: Nebraska signee Damion Daniels ready to step out of brother’s shadow, forge own path
Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation stories, a project that aims to bring readers insight into the Class of 2017 signees. These stories will run every week in the offseason. Our next story is on Damion Daniels, a 3-star defensive tackle from Texas.
DALLAS – The hallways of Bishop Dunne High School were not made for someone like Damion Daniels.
The small Catholic school southwest of downtown Dallas holds about 600 students, grades 6 through 12. The hallways are narrow. Which means Daniels, the 6-foot-1, 325-pound Nebraska defensive lineman signee, takes up about half of the hallway.
As he squeezes through the middle school section of the school, seventh-graders watch from their lockers, mouths agape.
Daniels, smiling and wearing a red cutoff T-shirt he’s bursting out of, hugs a few friends as he makes his way through the school. He fist-bumps the security guard in the locker room and waves to friends walking the opposite direction.
This is the life Daniels pictured four years ago, when he entered the school as a freshman. He imagined turning heads, following in his brother Darrion’s footsteps and being a big name on the football team.
And he’s achieved it, for the most part. This past season he was first-team all-state, District Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and homecoming king.
“Every award that Damion got, Darrion got first,” said their father, Tony. “Damion’s deal is right now he’s forced to play in his brother’s shadow because of the high school they went to.”
And that shadow, among other things, is why Damion is heading to Nebraska, ready to outdo his brother. So he can do his own thing. And write his own story.
One summer night when Damion was 3 years old, he sat on the couch in the living room and watched the Olympics with his father.
It was gymnastics that night. And for hours, the two watched flips on the TV.
“Daddy, I can do that,” Damion said, pointing to the TV.
“No, buddy, you can’t,” Tony said, sitting on a chair next to the couch.
“Yeah, I can,” Damion said, standing up.
The 3-year-old walked to the end of the couch, knelt down and jumped.
Tony leaped in the air but wasn’t quick enough. He failed to catch Damion, who hit the floor with his two feet, then gently sat down on the carpet, laughing.
Right then, right there in that living room, that’s when Tony knew Damion was something special.
“I was like, this kid is talented,” Tony said.
That’s why when Damion was in elementary school, his dad put him on Darrion’s team with kids 2 years older than he was instead of having him play flag football.
It’s also why when Damion was a freshman in high school, despite all of Darrion’s accolades, Tony told coach Michael Johnson to watch out for his younger son.
“I know you like Darrion,” he said, “but wait until you see Damion.”
At the time, Darrion was entering his junior year as a 4-star prospect who held scholarship offers from Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor, LSU, Texas and Nebraska.
In fall camp before the season, an offensive lineman went down. Damion, just wanting to play, volunteered for the position, then won the starting spot.
“You knew he loved the game; you knew he had a pure joy for football,” Johnson said. “And that was the thing that was sort of infectious about him. You saw that passion; you saw that love.”
For a season, Damion played on offense, and sparingly on defense, and Johnson watched carefully. The way he moved, the way he was growing, everything pointed to Damion becoming a great defensive player, Johnson said.
“There are certain things as a big man that’s hard for them to do – to bend, flexibility, the athleticism, the lateral movement – and those are things you saw right away with Damion,” Johnson said.
After that year, Damion had his eyes on a defensive tackle spot next to his brother, who would be a senior.
But before the season, Damion tore his meniscus and was ruled out for the year. He watched on the sidelines as Bishop Dunne won the Texas Private Schools Division I state title.
“I was just happy that my brother, that they got to get it,” Damion said.
Darrion graduated and enrolled at Oklahoma State on a football scholarship. And then it was Damion’s turn to be the Daniels on the line.
For two years, Daniels ruled at defensive tackle. And with each week, Johnson said, it seemed like Damion got bigger. And with each game, he got better.
He was ranked as high as the No. 50 defensive tackle in the 2017 class and one of the top-100 players in Texas.
Teams began to notice, and Damion’s first scholarship offer came from Oklahoma State in October 2015. After his junior season, some area schools began to offer, including SMU and Rice. In February, the big ones offered: LSU, USC, Texas, Ole Miss, UCLA, Baylor.
Nebraska defensive line coach John Parrella called on April 2 last year and offered Daniels a scholarship. The Huskers immediately jumped to near the top of his list.
Damion liked Parrella. And he liked the idea of being a Cornhusker.
So, in the offseason before his senior year, Damion now faced a choice: choose Oklahoma State and finally line up next to his brother on the defensive line or forge his own path.
His own path
Despite playing the same position and looking similar, Damion and Darrion are pretty different, Tony said.
As the middle child, Tony said, Darrion is skeptical. He’s quick to question his dad.
“If I ever tell him to do anything, he’ll really think about it before he does it,” Tony said. “And Damion, he just does it.”
On the field, Darrion is more of a pass rusher, a bull rusher. Damion is the bruiser, Tony said. A better run-stopper.
And off the field, Damion’s the softy. He loves spending time with his 1-year-old nephew, Umri. While Darrion, the marketing major, wants to head into the business world, Damion wants to be a coach or a personal trainer.
“I just want to help people get to that next level and be the person that can help people,” Damion said.
With the contrasts between the two, Damion’s interest in Nebraska over Oklahoma State wasn’t at all a shock, Tony said. He’s always followed his own path.
“It would have been a miracle for him to go to Oklahoma State,” Tony said.
It was the trip to Lincoln in summer 2016 that opened Damion’s eyes.
He attended the Friday Night Lights camp in Lincoln in June, and over a few days in Nebraska he talked with everyone he could.
He talked with coach Mike Riley about the team. He talked to freshman linemen Carlos Davis and his twin brother, Khalil, about brotherhood. He talked to senior lineman Kevin Maurice about the grind of the season. He talked with freshman Pernell Jefferson, a linebacker, about why he chose Nebraska.
“(Jefferson) just told me … he knows that life after football, he knows he’ll be successful,” Damion said.
Damion visited Nebraska again in September, a trip he’d later rate as a 12 out of 10. He even met some famous Nebraska fans, including Omaha native and actress Gabrielle Union, who is married to NBA star Dwyane Wade.
— Damion Daniels (@Dboogie79) September 4, 2016
No team kept in contact like Nebraska, Damion said. Parrella talked to Damion all the time. And he even called coach Johnson every now and then.
“He kept calling and saying, ‘Hey, coach, hey, we really need Damion and here are the reasons why,’ ” Johnson said.
Parrella said when he first met Daniels it was clear there was something special about him.
“Great kid,” Parrella said at Nebraska’s pro day on Tuesday. “The first time I met him I remember just thinking, ‘What a phenomenal kid.’ He’s going to be great.”
The relationship built between Parrella and Daniels paid off when Riley fired defensive coordinator Mark Banker and replaced him with Bob Diaco. When Diaco and Parrella visited Damion in January, they laid out the plans they had for him and how it would work switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.
Damion wasn’t too concerned with the switch but was curious about his role in the 3-4. Where would he fit? So he asked Diaco at that meeting.
“And he said it’s going to be a 3-4 but it’s not really going to be a 3-4 — it’s going to be more like multiple different defenses,” Daniels said. “And he told me the breakdowns and stuff about what they’re looking at and all the stuff they run, and I kind of see myself fitting in all that.”
Daniels said he was told he’s going to play “everything.” He could start at nose tackle but also could switch to end, if needed. The 3-4 defense, he said, is flexible enough they could move him around. Which Daniels likes.
And when Diaco and Parrella left after that meeting, Damion was sold. So was his father.
“Parrella did exactly what he needed to do to recruit my son,” Tony said. “He didn’t blow smoke up his butt; he’d call and talk to him about his games. He watched every game Damion played on Hudl. And every week when he has that phone call and he’d say, ‘Hey, I watched your game, on this play you were too high,’ or ‘Hey, you had a super game.’ He gave him the real.”
On National Signing Day, Damion stood at the podium in the auditorium of Bishop Dunne High School and publicly declared he would step out of his brother’s shadow. He was going to Nebraska.
“I chose Nebraska because it’s, just, Nebraska,” Damion said. “I just know, if I go up there, I’ll be taken care of and will be part of the brotherhood. Because I know they’ll take care of me, and I’ll take care of them.”
It’ll be different. He aches at the idea of being away from his family, especially his young nephew, Umri.
But since that flip in the living room, Tony has known this was Damion’s destiny. And he knows Damion is ready.
“He always had a lot to prove, so he’s always been a tough kid,” Tony said. “He’s very emotional. He loves his family, but he’s ready to do this.”