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2020 NFL draft: Nebraska defensive lineman Darrion Daniels and the brotherhood of football

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For Nebraska defensive lineman and NFL hopeful Darron Daniels, football is all about brotherhood.

Perhaps it is the brotherhood found playing for the Blackshirts, the Nebraska defensive unit. Perhaps it was found during his first “Tunnel Walk,” taking the field in front of the sea of red in front of 80,000 people, when he had to be reminded by a teammate that “this is just a spring game.”

Or perhaps it is transferring to a school to play with your younger brother, and to help him grow and improve as a football player and a person.

Daniels took to the podium on Thursday morning as part of his NFL Combine experience, a week long process where he hopes to show NFL teams and scouts that he can be a difference maker in the interior of their defensive fronts. But for Daniels, his path to the NFL has taken some twists and turns. He started his career at Oklahoma State and played three years for the Cowboys, but after an injury-plagued final season, he looked to finish his career elsewhere.

Playing alongside his brother, a Nebraska defensive lineman, was a huge draw.

Describing his decision to transfer to Nebraska, Daniels told the media that: “I also want to be there for my brother and help push him. I knew that talking to a lot of the coaches, they were saying that ‘we realize that you’re coming here to light that fire under your brother,’ so when I got in that was my priority. I had to work on myself to get better and I got to work on my brother to get better.”

Daniels put in that work, and despite having just arrived on campus he was named a captain for the Cornhuskers. His relationship with his brother was the impetus for Daniels establishing himself as a leader in the Nebraska locker room. “It went from me pushing my brother, to me and the twins [defensive linemen Khalil and Carlos Davis] pushing my brother. And it went from me and the twins pushing my brother, to me and the twins pushing the young guys on the d-line, and then to the linebackers, and then to the [defensive backs]. So when spring ball came around, we’re not just influencing the defense but we’re influencing the offense as well. I brought a contagious feeling in holding my brother accountable, and that is what did it for everybody [in selecting him as a captain]. They trusted me.”

As for Daniels himself, a player he is trying to model his game after is current Philadelphia Eagle Fletcher Cox. His answer to this question highlights the importance that Daniels places upon the technical aspects to playing the position. “I love Fletcher Cox. I love his game. One thing that does it for me is his hand placement. It is rare that you see his hands out of position. And that’s one thing that I want to work on at the next level is that my hand placement is as effective as his. I feel like we kind of share some qualities, we’re kind of the same size...he’s a beast.”

In addition to his success on the field, Daniels was a success in the classroom as well. He was a Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll selection for both the Fall of 2019 and Spring of 2019 as well. Daniels earned his degree from Oklahoma State in Marketing in December of 2018, and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Applied Science at Nebraska. He credits his mother with instilling the importance of school work in his mind:

My momma don’t play. My momma don’t play. It’s been something that she’s implemented in us the course of our whole life. In her eyes, Cs wasn’t passing. So it was challenging for us. For me and my brother and my sister, we all wanted to play multiple sports. We were very extracurricular kids...but my mom was like ‘grades come first.’ So it was funny prior to coming to college I told my mom that ‘I’m three-and-out, I’m three-and-out.’ And she said ‘not without a degree!’ So it was promise to my mom that I’m gonna get my degree first.

Throughout the course of college, I’ve learned to love learning...I wanted to be good at anything I did and academics is something that I had to do, so I wanted to be good at it.

I asked Daniels what the one thing he wanted to prove to NFL teams that he could do at the next level, and versatility was the crux of his answer.

I’m versatile. I can move. Being a nose guard, I was very selfless. I was very selfless as a nose guard. I took on double-teams. Even in the pass rush, I would rather penetrate and let somebody else get the sack than me get the sack myself. While I’m out here one thing that I want to show is that I can move. I can bend edges, and if they need me to be a pass rusher, I can do that too.

Daniels looks back at his time in Lincoln with fondness. He believes that being in that program taught him how to be a professional, and still has great memories of his one and only true “Tunnel Walk.” A staple of gamedays in Lincoln, the walk from the locker room to the field culminates in an explosion from the “Sea of Red.” I asked Daniels about those walks (yes, I let my Nebraska fanhood come through for an instant). As a captain, Daniels was always out first ahead of the team so he never truly got to experience it on a regular season gameday. But in his one Spring Game in Lincoln, he got to enjoy it in full:

So I was a captain, so I had to leave [the locker room] early. I didn’t really get the full experience. But the first time I kind of experienced it was during spring football. It was like, walking out, I’ve got everybody around me. I don’t think that I had ever been in a stadium that full. So I’m walking in and I see everybody yelling, and I see that sea of red, and everybody is just so excited to see us play. And it just sent chills from my head all the way down to my toes...and it was funny I remember, I don’t remember who whispered in my ear but they whispered in my ear ‘this is a spring game.’ And I was like oh man!

The NFL path in front of Daniels might be a bit of steep road, but his ability to command double-teams and to penetrate as a pass rusher in the interior will make him an attractive option to teams. Perhaps teams like the New England Patriots, who face some decisions of their own along the interior. He also has his catchline ready for his first NFL start on Sunday Night Football, when he will introduce himself as “Darrion Daniels: Cornhuster Cowboy.”

But in the end, brotherhood is a big part of how Daniels approaches the game, and in his own brother Damion, he sees that the future is extremely bright:

My brother’s best ball is ahead of him. He doesn’t know it yet...when I first got to Nebraska I saw him as my little brother. Now I see him as a grown man. He understands his strengths now. I’m glad that [defensive line coach Tony] Tuioti is there for him because Coach Tuioti he’s seen differenst styles of defensive linemen and he knows what my brother is capable of. He pushes him every day. I just feel like my brother’s best football is ahead of him...I’m really excited to see what he does.

Perhaps Daniels can replicate that feeling of brotherhood again next season, only this time in New England.

Mark Schofield is in Indianapolis all week to cover the combine for Pats Pulpit. Make sure to give him a follow on Twitter @markschofield.