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Big Red Blitz: Dawson Breaks Down Outside Linebacker Room

June 19, 2021

Assistant coaches Greg Austin and Mike Dawson swung through Fremont as part of Wednesday’s Big Red Blitz tour across the state. After running through each position group on their respective sides of the ball, Austin and Dawson went a bit more in-depth on the key players in their own rooms.

Dawson broke down the various type of outside linebackers his room is split into and provided some more details into how Nebraska’s defense works, starting with the nickel, the role that JoJo Domann has played the last few years.

“JoJo’s a great guy, a great one to point out as far as a position that uses the most flexibility … Whenever I talk about JoJo I talk about him being able to do multiple things and use him different ways, which is awesome,” Dawson said. “He can be doing a safety’s job, which is what he came in as. He can walk down to the second level doing the same job that Barrett Ruud’s guys do or a walk down safety, and then on the very next snap he could be playing inside in the C gap and the tight end doing a defensive end’s job. That position is an important piece.”

Behind Domann, Dawson has a group of younger guys he’s grooming at the nickel spot. Like Domann, Javin Wright and Isaac Gifford came to Nebraska as safeties and provide both the size to play at the line of scrimmage and the mobility to drop back in coverage. From his own room, Dawson mentioned a pair of walk-ons.

“Simon Otte, a smart guy that can do a bunch of things, and John Bullock, who played that position a little bit in the spring game,” Dawson said. “You guys probably noticed him; he’s just one of those guys that finds a way to get around and get to the ball and also when the ball’s on the ground, he’s the one there to scoop it up. Those are things, those intangibles that you can’t measure with a 40-yard dash or a bench press or a power clean.”

Dawson called the other general type of outside linebacker in Nebraska’s defense the EDGE position, borrowing from NFL terminology.

“These guys are 4-3 defensive ends, they’re 3-4 outside linebackers, they’re in two-point stances, they’re in three-point stances, there’s two of them on the field, there’s three of them on the field,” Dawson said. “These EDGE defenders, the guys that are going to be able to play like true defensive linemen.”

The typical 3-4 defense features three down linemen and two outside linebackers, but Nebraska started to go away from that last season in favor of more two-lineman fronts with outside linebackers in addition to Domann as the nickel.

“Most of the time that we’re in a four-down front you’re going to see two big defensive tackles that come from Coach Tony Tuioti’s room, then you’re going to see two quote-unquote defensive ends — those are the guys that are probably going to come from my room,” Dawson said. “They may be in a two-point stance, they may be in a three-points stance, that doesn’t change their job or their assignment … You’ll see those guys up and down, you’ll see them what I call going to the ball — rushing the quarterback; going away from the ball — dropping back in pass coverage; and then in the run game, sometimes we set the edge.”

Dawson highlighted a handful of the EDGE defenders that are in the mix for playing time or working towards that in the case of some underclassmen.

>> Garrett Nelson: “To play the offensive or defensive line as a true freshman In the Big Ten is a major job, that’s really, really difficult to do … That was a heck of a deal that he was able to go ahead and play that freshman year at that position. Last year, he kind of started learning how to do it, not just go out there and play. I think you saw some good improvement, especially towards the tail end of that season, being more physical and doing a better job rushing the quarterback.”

>> Caleb Tannor: “He can kind of go both to the position that JoJo plays and then play that five-technique as well where he’s down. He’s kind of getting that body type where he can walk out on a No. 2 receiver on one play and then be speed rushing an offensive tackle on the next, or if a tight end shows up he has great length.”

>> Pheldarius Payne: “Pheldarius Payne is the guy that had the next-most snaps last year so we’re talking about him next. He’s now a full year into the position. He’s healthy, more healthy than he was last year. He kind of had a shoulder, kind of had a foot, kind of had some stuff going on. Now he’s getting to the point where he’s healthy, he has a full year under Zach Duval and his staff, so we’re really excited to see a guy that’s got a really quick twitch, high motor.”

>> Damian Jackson: “This dude’s such an awesome story. First of all, great story, Six years in the special forces. He wants me to coach him like he’s a freshman on the first day of school … He would be upset if I didn’t coach him that hard just like every other guy. That’s awesome for me to be able to show those guys it’s not because I don’t love you, it’s because I want you to be the best player you can be. So a really big part of it. He’s a guy that never played high school football; he went into the service for six years and now he’s determined to do this and that says a lot about his character, a lot about his work ethic and he can be a real bell cow for us in that room as far as all those attributes that he have.”

>> Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler: “Those are two guys that I’m really looking forward to seeing take the next step. Did anybody have a good year last year during the pandemic? Nobody did. It was horrible, right? The craziest year ever. Imagine being a freshman in college and away from home for the first time and having to deal with that. I’ve dealt with, for 25 years, freshmen in college. They can be from an hour down the road and get home sick. Imagine going through what those guys had to go through, going through quarantine — Jimari, I think he went 26 days  maybe in quarantine in a dorm room 2,000 miles away. I’m excited about those guys to see what they can do and start to turn the corner.”

Stay tuned to Hail Varsity for more from the Big Red Blitz in the coming days.

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