LINCOLN — When Nebraska’s defensive line enters a room, you hear them before you see them.
Like a hurricane — or a group of toddlers — they dominate the space with a destruction of noise, laughter, jokes and arm punches. Juniors Carlos and Khalil Davis are magnets, and if any of the linemen stray too far, usually they end up back wherever the twins are. They all live in the same apartment building, too.
They eat together. They do interviews together. They pick on each other. On Thursday, Khalil was carrying around a gallon jug, filled with a mixture of Gatorade and water. While talking with reporters about eating better, Khalil started ragging on sophomore Damion Daniels.
“Damion, The Michelin Man, Grade A Meat, Daniels,” Khalil called him. “He used to be able to eat a full box of extra large pizza. Now he’s down to medium.”
The group laughs, falling on each other. Media members and school communications staffers chuckle. Daniels shakes his head with a smile.
But behind the show, there’s always senior Freedom Akinmoladun. “Freakamoladun” as the Davis twins call him.
Freedom is the quiet one. And he’s very aware of it. And OK with it.
“I am definitely the quiet one,” Akinmoladun said. “Yeah, I let them make their jokes and I laugh. It’s funny but at the same time, I can’t dish like that.”
But when it comes down to it, Akinmoladun might be the most important one, the leader of this ragtag group. He and Mick Stoltenberg are the elder teachers. In five years at Nebraska, they have seen it all. Three head coaches, three defensive coordinators, four position coaches. And yet, for the third season in a row, Akinmoladun and this defensive line are being asked to do something completely different than the year before.
But learning on the fly is what Akinmoladun does best.
“Freedom is smart, he figures stuff out quick,” Khalil said. “We often go to him for help. Because he always has it down.”
The senior has been thrown around all over the field since arriving in Lincoln. And has made it a habit to diagnose what he and his teammates need to do, and disseminate that information.
“I’m a quieter one off the field, but at the same time, they look up to me and say, ‘Hey, can you help me out with this? Can you help me out with that?’ ” Akinmoladun said. “So I know my position I know my role I’m kinda like the teacher.”
Akinmoladun was recruited under Bo Pelini as a tight end. He spent his redshirt season in 2014 working out at that spot on the scout team. When Mike Riley’s staff took over, he transitioned to defensive end.
In Mark Banker’s 4-3 defense, he had 4½ sacks and 21 total tackles. As a sophomore in the same defense, he added four more sacks and 32 tackles. He even forced a fumble.
In Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense a season ago, he was tasked with a more passive role at defensive end. The defensive line hated it and Akinmoladun’s stats tanked: one sack, 24 tackles, two pass deflections.
They weren’t recruited to Nebraska to play passive, or in a 3-4. But there’s growing optimism within the line about this upcoming defense.
“We love it,” Khalil said.
In a 4-3, it’s pretty clear cut what you’re supposed to do in each spot, Akinmoladun said. In a 3-4, it’s a little tougher, particularly last year in Diaco’s system. But because this new 3-4 is more attacking, it fits really well, he said.
“With this coaching staff, they say, ‘Hey, you have a responsibility, but we want you to go play. We want you to go attack every single time,’ ” Akinmoladun said. “So I’m really happy that this defense came along because it feels like it’s a 3-4 defense where defensive linemen can eat.”
Still, its new. And the line is still figuring it out. Which is where Akinmoladun shines.
The combinations for the three line positions up front are numerous for Nebraska. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has Akinmoladun, the Davis twins, Daniels, DaiShon Neal, Peyton Newell, Ben Stille, Stoltenberg, Deontre Thomas, Vaha Vainuku, not to mention freshmen Tate Wildeman and Casey Rodgers, who could all see playing time. Chinander could mix and match the line however he wants.
Akinmoladun tries to make sure the culture within their room is competitive, but supportive.
“The best thing about that room is that we’re all brothers,” Akinmoladun said. “There’s a lot of depth now. Especially having just three linemen on the field. Everybody can play. That’s what’s really nice. Everybody has the ability to play, everybody knows what they need to do and that just makes me confident because if I have to come out, I know that the man behind me or somebody else is going to make the play that I would have made.”
Whoever plays, that’s fine. They all travel in a group, anyway.