In 2019, Nebraska fielded one of the worst special teams units in the country.
The Huskers were 112th in Football Outsiders’ SFEI Special Teams Ratings, representing the per-possessions scoring advantage a team’s special teams units should have on a neutral field against an average opponent.
Nebraska was even worse — 120th — in ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings which is based on special teams' contribution to scoring margin on a per-play basis, adjusted for strength of opposing special teams faced.
That’s not going to cut it moving forward, something the coaching staff is very aware of.
“I think there’s more of a sense of urgency in everything we’re doing given how everything played out last year,” outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson said. “Everybody on this staff is very competitive, very prideful. Coach Frost is a guy that’s going to try to win at everything he does, everything’s a competition. I think that bar’s been raised. Everybody on this staff knows that we have to improve ourselves in all areas, special teams being one of them, but not certainly the only one.”
Dawson wasn’t even on the staff last season, but he watched from afar and has plenty of special teams experience. Former outside linebacker coach Jovan Dewitt and graduate assistant Zach Crespo primarily handled special teams last year and both are now at North Carolina. Instead of Dawson directly replacing Dewitt as special teams coordinator, though, Nebraska mixed things up.
Enter Jonathan Rutledge, Nebraska’s new senior special teams analyst.
"It was a big decision,” Scott Frost said. “There were a lot of guys that were interested in the job. We wanted to find the right guy. There were a bunch of good coaches. We wanted someone that fit with kind of our culture of the coaching staff as well. Really liked Rutledge's pedigree. Where he has been. The type of person he is. Just being a family guy. I think he is going to fit in real well. We are going to try this. I didn't really want to burden someone like coach Dawson with making sure our outside linebackers improved and running all four special teams. That's heavy role. I wanted somebody that could kind of do the Xs and Os and schematics off the field for our special teams and really train our coaches to go out and implement it with our players and it's going to save our position coaches a lot of time and have somebody whose entire time is dedicated to making our special teams better."
He can’t work actively with the players on the field, so good communication with the active coaches will be key. Frost said he was divvying up on-field duties for the spring, though he wasn’t sure if that would last into the season.
“Rut’s kind of in the command center and giving us the vision and all that stuff,” Dawson said. “For me as a guy that grew up as a [Division] I-AA coach going back to my Maine or my New Hampshire days, if you’re coaching linebackers you’re coaching every single special teams; that’s part of the job. You don’t have as many coaches, obviously not as big of a staff. And then my time at Boston College too doing the special teams made me hone in my skills and all that stuff. So I have strong opinions about it and know what I look for and what I’d be talking about, so it think that’s a big piece of it.”
Dawson said he was working “heavy” with the punt team, though he’s willing to help out anywhere else as needed. Those in the linebacker room are usually more involved on special teams than defensive line, so Dawson said he’s excited about that part of his new role.
Tight ends coach Sean Beckton was one of the point men on the return units.
“I’m responsible for punt return, so I have most of the returners obviously on punt return and then I’m going to focus in a little more on the back end of kickoff return,” Beckton said. “Obviously we’ve divvied out a lot more responsibility there. I’m looking forward to really improving our special teams in the return game.”
Beckton met with the media after Nebraska’s first spring practice, and he spent the special teams portion working on punt return. He identified four players as potential punt returners — Wan’Dale Robinson, Alante Brown, Cam Taylor-Britt and Kade Warner, calling them all “pretty natural.” He was hoping to build up more depth beyond those four when spring football got shut down.
At that point, Beckton hadn’t started working on kickoff return yet but mentioned Rahmir Johnson as well as Jamie Nance, Demariyon Houston, Robinson and Brown. Brown is the true freshman wide receiver who enrolled early, and though he only got a couple of days on the practice field to show what he can do, he made a good first impression.
“Alante Brown has been very impressive from what I saw today,” Beckton said.
Rutledge and Nebraska were just starting to feel each other out in terms of what they were changing and what they were keeping the same on special teams, and now all that practice time is gone. How quickly can a team turn its special teams units around? It has as much as or more to do with personnel than with practice time — both in terms of talent and in commitment.
“It’s a mixture; you have to have playmakers, you have to have really good guys and then you become a lot better,” Dawson said. “We had Mike Hughes our second year at UCF. He’s your kick and punt returner and you’re going to get a lot better like that. At certain positions, a big impact will make a big swing. Then you continue to grow. Not only do you have to want to play on special teams, but you have to want to play great on special teams if you want your special teams to be successful and if you probably want to be a successful player at the next level. If you want to make it to the NFL, which a lot of guys have that aspiration, that’s what they want to do.”
Nebraska will have to find a way to make up for lost time when football resumes, but whenever that is Frost made it clear improving special teams is one of the staff’s main priorities.
"One of our focuses and emphasis on the team was special teams potentially costs us three or four games last year,” Frost said. “You could probably make an argument for more of that. But we definitely need to be better in that area … The effort needs to change. The details need to change. And having one guy to drive it I think is going to help us and all the coaches are on board too. We know how important it is and we are going to make sure we put in the time to be better at it."