Mike Dawson, special teams coordinator.
One major question that had lingered on into the start of spring was answered on day one—Nebraska’s special teams unit will be handled this season largely by outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson.
“Last year we divvied it up to the entire coaching staff,” said Husker head coach Scott Frost on Monday. “That model was tough, that model was especially tough in a COVID year. Mike Dawson’s going to do it for us now. He’s been a special teams coach at a lot of different places, at the 1-A level, so he’s going to be the lead for us on all the special teams.
“He’ll certainly get a lot of help from the other assistants just like we had last year but Mike’s going to take the lead on it as well as coaching outside linebackers. Excited for much-needed progress there.”
Last season, the job largely fell to senior analyst Jonathan Rutledge. Former outside linebacker coach and special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt moved on to the same position at North Carolina, and Nebraska handed off his positional responsibilities to Dawson, returning from a year stint with the New York Giants.
With Rutledge only an analyst in title, though, he couldn’t offer on-field instruction. During practice, Nebraska went more by-committee than normal, dividing up responsibilities for the various teams between the assistant coaches.
It sounds as though some of that will carry over.
“I think no matter who the special teams coach is, it’s the job of all the assistants,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. “When it’s the defense going out onto the field to practice and I’m ‘coordinating’ and everyone else is helping do whatever they can to make the defense the best, that’s the same thing I need to do when Mike’s out there ‘coordinating’ the special teams. It’s my job to be an assistant in that phase and do whatever I can to help out special teams.”
Still, Nebraska should benefit from having one on-field assistant coach able to oversee everything.
Dawson will lead punt and punt return as well as kickoff and kick return, Frost said. The expectation is that line coaches Greg Austin and Tony Tuioti will handle coaching up the two field goal units.
One other personnel change that’s noteworthy here: Bill Busch, who rejoined the program as a defensive analyst, will provide some help on special teams, though Frost said he’s “going to help primarily with the defense, just off the field with schematics.”
It’s been a year, so things can and do change, but it’s interesting to contrast this latest decision with what was said about the role a year ago when Rutledge was hired.
“I didn’t really want to burden someone like Coach Dawson with making sure our outside linebackers improved and running all four special teams,” Frost said. “That’s a 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.”
In going the route of the analyst as the special teams lead, Nebraska joined a select few among the 65 Power Five programs (Notre Dame included) who didn’t have an on-field assistant in charge of the third phase of the game.
When we looked at P5 staffs in late-January, only 11 other programs were without a full-time assistant handling things.
Three of them were simply in-between guys after a previous coordinator had left—Alabama, Tennessee, and Maryland. Alabama hired a special teams coordinator to replace the one who left for Texas, and is now looking to hire his replacement after he stepped away. Maryland hired a coordinator. Tennessee did as well.
Seven had either an analyst or quality control guy running things, and one went by-committee with the assistants. Fifty-three (53) had a full-time assistant handling special teams. Nebraska now joins that group.
It needs to see improvement.
Rutledge and Nebraska parted ways less than a calendar year after he was hired because Nebraska didn’t show enough improvement for Frost’s liking.
“If we were better on special teams, we probably would have won a few more games around here the last year or two,” Frost said during a radio spot earlier this year.
During this staff’s first year, the Husker special teams unit ranked 80th nationally in Bill Connelly’s SP+ efficiency-based system. The same system ranked the unit 124th nationally in 2019. Dewitt’s departure after the year was thought to be best for both sides.Rutledge’s unit ranked 93rd in his first year, and the analyst had a proven track record of making substantial improvements in his second year.
The unit certainly had untimely moments, but it also had positive signs as well. Connor Culp, brought over from LSU as a grad transfer, won the Big Ten Kicker of the Year award and then opted to return for his extra season.
He handled place kicking and kickoffs. It’ll be interesting to see if he holds the kickoff job, an area Nebraska needs significant improvement. Field position was a battle that rarely went NU’s way in 2020; a 30% touchback rate on kickoffs ranked 81st nationally and 10th in the Big Ten while the 23-yards-per-return average allowed ranked 11th in the league.
Daniel Cerni, who missed all of 2020, figures to be the top guy at punter if healthy, and that should help what was an up-and-down area of Nebraska’s special teams game.
Punt return was good, kick return was bad. There are pieces to work with.
And Nebraska is hoping Dawson can put them together.
“Mike’s done a good job everywhere we’ve been,” Chinander said.
Dawson was the special teams coordinator for Boston College from 2009 through 2011.
“After spending last year in the NFL and three years prior to that, you better play on special teams if you want to play or keep your career going,” Dawson said last year. “To me, you have to have that culture. ‘Not only do I want to be on them, I’m going to get after somebody’s backside.’”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.