Spring game gives Nebraska redshirts chance to show growth after sitting out last season

Spring game gives Nebraska redshirts chance to show growth after sitting out last season
Jaevon McQuitty enrolled early at Nebraska but was held out for most of his first year on campus because of injuries. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — On the second floor of the Hawks Championship Center, redshirt freshman Damion Daniels is cornered.

In front of him, a slew of media. Behind him, juniors Carlos and Khalil Davis, standing tall, saying nothing, acting like security guards escorting a pop star. To his right is Deontre Thomas, a sophomore now despite being in the same recruiting class as Daniels.

“If one of us is doing an interview,” Thomas says, “we all do one.”

Daniels smiles.

“To supervise,” he says.

Tuesday was Daniels’ first time speaking to the media since arriving in Lincoln 10 months ago, and now that he’s done so, he’s likely on his own for interviews from here on out. And though small, it represents a shift in Daniels’ career at Nebraska. Despite being one of the crown jewels of Nebraska’s 2017 recruiting class, he sat out last year and redshirted, which was tough for the 6-foot-2, 325-pound nose tackle from Dallas.

Nebraska’s spring game on Saturday represents an opportunity for Daniels and the rest of the redshirts who’ve been waiting around for a year. They’ve watched their team go 4-8 without being able to help. They’ve seen the coaches they committed to get fired and are now thrown into a system they weren’t recruited for.

But both Daniels and wide receiver Jaevon McQuitty are antsy to play in a game for the first time since Friday nights back home — and prove they fit.

“I’m ready to play. I’m just ready for my family to see me play,” McQuitty said. “It’s been almost two years since my mom and grandma and dad have seen me play so, yeah, I’m real anxious.”

A shoulder injury hindered McQuitty’s practices last spring after he enrolled early. A knee injury took him out for his entire freshman year. The four-star wide receiver from Columbia, Missouri, was expected to back up Stanley Morgan last season. Now, in this new scheme, he’ll back up Morgan and also play some in the slot.

But for as painful as redshirting can be, the year off does provide benefits the underclassmen can’t really understand yet, said senior Freedom Akinmoladun, who redshirted in 2014. He’s already seen Daniels grow and mature.

“Coming in, you have that high school mentality. Having that year for him, he changed his mindset,” Akinmoladun said. “He actually wants to compete more, and I can see that drive in his eyes.

“That’s why I really feel like redshirting is really a blessing because you are allowed to see what happens. You’re allowed to see what the other players have to go through to get to that position. I feel like he has done that.”

Daniels dropped 10 pounds of fat and added nine pounds of muscle. He feels quicker than ever. Healthier than ever.

“This year — I mean, he’s always been mean — but this year I feel like he’s more mean,” Thomas said of Daniels, tapping on his shoulder pad. “He’s out there attacking.”

“He understands his strength,” Carlos Davis said, pointing at Daniels’ bicep. “What he can do with his frame.”

Both Daniels and McQuitty had to watch others at their position in their recruiting class play while they sat. Daniels with Thomas, McQuitty with Tyjon Lindsey.

Daniels didn’t mind, though. It’s nice, he said, because he can ask Thomas for tips on how to prepare or how to get his mind right.

“I’m going through exactly what he was going through a year ago,” Daniels said.

For McQuitty, the year off to rehab his knee was something he wouldn’t wish on his enemies.

“It was the worst thing I ever did in my life,” McQuitty said. “It’s the worst thing. It made me grow as a person and just see everything different in my life. So I’m kinda happy I got hurt because I see a lot of things differently.”

It also gives him four years of eligibility in this new offense that makes his eyes light up.

“Everybody can make a play, everybody can be open,” McQuitty said. “We can put anybody anywhere. The running back can be outside, the receiver can be at the running back. Just putting people different places to make plays.”

He’s ready to make some Saturday.

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