Mike Dawson is in the enviable position of returning essentially 100% of his production in the outside linebacker room.
Niko Cooper (special teams contributor) and David Alston (zero career snaps played) were the only departures this offseason. Once JoJo Domann decided to use his extra season of eligibility it signaled the return of the entire outside linebacker rotation from last season. Dawson didn’t add any 2021 recruits to his room, which means the spring and summer were all about that group putting in the work to make a leap.
“The guys had a good spring, so we had a lot of good momentum coming out of that,” Dawson told Hail Varsity in Fremont during the Big Red Blitz state-wide tour. “Could see some good, constant improvement all the way through. I thought they did a nice job making sure they finished hard through the end of the spring, so that was great. Now they’re down in the weight room spending a lot of time down there with Coach [Zach] Duval and his staff which is going really well. I’ve been down through there a couple times and they’re just getting bigger and stronger.
“The thing that’s great that’s always hard to measure, how much better is it going or not? But the attitude, the intensity and all that stuff is there. That’s the big part of it — not only are they working but they’re excited to do it. I think there’s a little difference — ‘hey, we have to do this in order to be able to be successful’ to ‘Hey, I can’t wait to get in there and really work out and crush this workout and take it one day at a time.’”
A big part of the smoother offseason is that Dawson hasn’t had worry about reintegrating himself and getting to know his players again after returning to Lincoln last year following a stint with the New York Giants.
“The great part for me is I can hit the ground running with these guys,” Dawson said. “There’s no feeling-out period like we had last year where they’re getting to know me and they’re starting to learn what will set me off or kind of get me onto a rant or something like that, so we can jump over that part of it and really get the football piece down … Now instead of just going through here’s the broad stroke or the big picture of what you have to do, let’s really detail it and not only what we’re doing but why we’re doing it.”
During Dawson’s time with the microphone in front of the fans in Fremont, he ran through the various types of outside linebackers in Nebraska’s defense and touched on some of the key players in those groups. There are nickel ‘backers (linebacker/safety hybrids), edge defenders (linebacker/defensive end hybrids) and then guys that can fit into multiple positions. Cross-training is a staple for this staff on both sides of the ball.
“The good thing is the way that this defense is set up and the way it’s evolved is probably, because the game of football is always evolving, you have to kind of be able to evolve to keep up with the offenses that become more versatile and do different things,” Dawson said. “So you can’t stay the same on defense or you’re just going to get torn apart. We really started to kind of cross-train our guys, even within positions. For example, Nick [Henrich] had an easy transition going back and forth between going from inside to outside back to inside because a lot of the times, based on calls, we’re doing the same jobs.”
Henrich was a 4-star inside linebacker recruit out of Omaha Burke who looked poised to play right away as a true freshman before injuries derailed his season. Nebraska had three players entrench themselves at the inside linebacker position in Collin Miller, Will Honas and Luke Reimer, so snaps were hard to come by for others at that position early on. The coaches were high on Henrich, so to get him on the field sooner they gave him a chance to play for Dawson at outside linebacker. He was back at inside linebacker during the spring and Dawson anticipates he’ll stay there following Honas’ injury, but he also anticipates defensive coordinator Erik Chinander will utilize Henrich’s versatility to get him attacking downhill and going after the quarterback from his interior position.
For Nebraska, linebackers need to be just as prepared to tangle with an offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage as to drop in coverage and run with a tight end. On any given snap, second-level defenders could be doing a defensive lineman’s’s job, a linebacker’s or a safety’s.
“So there’s a little bit of carryover that way and even though it’s not something that you’re doing down in and down out, you have to be able to use those same skills and have those same techniques,” Dawson said. “So I think that part of it probably makes it a little bit easier to kind of move back and forth.”
For Nebraska, versatility is key and the Huskers have plenty of it in the outside linebacker room. Now, heading into Dawson’s second season in charge of that room, he has an incredible amount of continuity as well.
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.