Through two weeks, Nebraska’s special teams units have been far from spectacular. Based on Nebraska’s results against Colorado and Troy, the Huskers are 101st in the country in special teams S&P ratings.
Field position and field goal kicking have both been issues, but the Huskers also gave up a touchdown in the third phase of the game against the Trojans on Saturday.
“Obviously it wasn’t very good, right?” special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said. “We gave up a score on special teams that ended up being the difference in the game, so those are things that have got to get cleaned up throughout the course of the season. Any time you give up one of those situations, you have to harp back on what you’re doing fundamentally and all those things and effort in terms of lane coverage and things like that, so those are the things that just need to get cleaned up from a consistency basis.”
The touchdown, a 58-yard punt return by Cedarius Rookard, gave the Trojans a double-digit lead and put Nebraska in comeback mode for the rest of the game.
“There were six missed tackles on that play, so open field tackling was the biggest stress point in terms of that,” Dewitt said. “There were two or three guys that were loafing towards the end of the play, so that’s a mentality that’s got to get changed.”
One of those missed tackles was by true freshman cornerback Cam Taylor, a gunner on both the kickoff and punt coverage units. Taylor beat the Trojans down the field and was there as Rookard caught the ball, but the returner side-stepped him and took off. However, despite missing the tackle near the Troy 40-yard line, Taylor was not one of the loafers as he hustled back into the play and nearly caught Rookard.
“The one thing that we tell Cam and anybody that’s the first one there is we want you to be aggressive and go attack that tackle, which I thought he did,” Dewitt said. “Now obviously, we’ve got to talk to him about finishing and wrapping up and things like that, but as you watch the film, you also see he’s one of the first people back to go chase the ball down again, so his effort on that play was amazing. I wish there were more guys with that kind of effort on a consistent effort in terms of special teams. We don’t tell him to slow down at all; we tell him to maintain his aggression.”
Later in the game, Taylor showed his speed as a gunner once again by recovering a muffed punt by Troy.
Dewitt said they aren’t going to dramatically change what they do, but he is certainly taking a look at which positions players would be best suited for special-teams duty.
“I think any time you look at where there are breakdowns on special teams, the first thing you do is have an introspective look at it in terms of what can we do or what can I do, as a staff, that’s better for the guys,” Dewitt said. “Is that potentially changing people around? Is it potentially changing schematically? So there’s a balance between changing some people and changing a little bit schematically, but you’re not going to be in a wholesale change. This is who we are, this is what we do. So what we’re looking to do is identify who can and who can’t, or who should and who doesn’t, and then try to manipulate your roster from that standpoint.”
Though the first two weeks, the special teams units featured a mix of starters (including graduate transfer safety Tre Neal on both return units and both coverage units), scholarship reserves and walk-ons.
Dewitt said part of his responsibilities as the special teams coordinator is to make sure each of the players that take the field understand the importance of attention to detail in the third phase of the game.
“Every time you go into special teams, sometimes it’s really hard to stress and for people to internalize the importance of the details,” Dewitt said. “So if you even looked at the one rugby where we ran a pressure and got them out of it, we had one slight false step. Caleb [Tannor] was coming around the edge and he took a false step, and he was maybe six inches away from blocking the kick which could have easily changed the outcome of the game. It was going to be a block for our ball on the 10-yard line or a potential touchdown. He came to me after we had that meeting and was like, ‘You know, Coach, you’re right; the little details matter.’ Sometimes the growing pains in changing a program and changing a culture, you have to go through those things.
“You have to be able to see it and visualize it and be able to internalize it. Sometime it takes mistakes and horrible situations before people fully understand, no matter how much you preach and harp on it, if there’s not a realization that those things can happen. I think there was a realization this last weekend that all those little details matter all the time.”
“Buy-in” was the buzz word at Monday’s press conference after the loss to Troy, and that goes for special teams as well. Dewitt’s focus is making sure that everyone who plays for him is as invested as he is.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” Dewitt said. “I take it very personally, and I think our players know that and I think our players are starting to take it personally. It’s as personal to me as anything. It’s personal to everybody on that staff that works on special teams, maybe me the most of all because I’m in charge of them. Any time we’re not performing well on special teams, trust me: it bothers me. I don’t get to sleep very much.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.