It’s no secret that Nebraska’s special teams have been anything but special the last few years. Heading into the 2021 season, outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson is in charge of changing that as Nebraska’s new special teams coordinator.
According to Football Outsiders’ metrics, the Huskers were 99th or worse in five of the seven categories: 106th in net field position, 118th in kickoff return efficiency, 113th in kickoff efficiency, 118th in punt efficiency and 99th in opponent field goal efficiency.
“I think that they’re all going to go hand-in-hand with each other,” Dawson told Hail Varsity during his Big Red Blitz stop in Fremont. “I think that we’re focusing right now on making sure that we’re really good with our techniques and our fundamentals on the four core social teams areas as far as blocking, as far as getting off blocks, covering, squeezing lanes, widening lanes in the return units and doing a good job with that. Then it’s going to match up with the specialists putting the ball where we want it to go, both kickoff and punt.
“Then obviously throughout the PAT and field goal block, both of those are kind of a little bit more offense and defense oriented, but you need a great battery, the snap’s got to be there, it’s got to be a guy that can hold it and there’s got to be a guy that can put it through the uprights. All those things kind of work hand in hand together and we’re going to have to do a great job in all those different parts of the special teams.”
One of the areas in which the Huskers did well was in field goal efficiency (50th nationally). The overall ranking is likely pulled down by the majority of Connor Culp’s kicks coming from shorter distances, but he did enough to earn Big Ten Kicker of the Year honors, and he elected to return for an extra season this year. However, Dawson is looking for improvement even at the place kicker spot.
“I think it’s great, and just like all the rest of the positions on the team we want guys that are going to push them and compete,” Dawson said. “I’m sure that Connor wants the same thing because he wants to maximize and be the best that he can be. I had a high school coach that used to talk about winning a championship and then becoming fat, dumb and happy where you’re kind of resting on your laurels. We don’t want to get that way at any position and we’re going to challenge Connor the same way. We want him to keep working and improve himself and the more points he can put through it’s obviously going to be better for all of us.”
Nebraska’s best unit was the punt return team where the Huskers ranked fifth nationally. However, that ranking was based on just nine returns all year which included a 39-yard return by Levi Falck. Nebraska’s primary returner, Cam Taylor-Britt, averaged 13.2 yards per return which would rank seventh nationally — if he qualified. Taylor-Britt only returned six punts, 0.8 per game. To get more value there, Nebraska needs to create more returnable punts.
The rest is all bad. One of the worst is the kickoff phase where Nebraska is 109th nationally (and 13th in the Big Ten) at 57.2 yards per kick. Opponents average 22.6 yards per return, 87th nationally. The Huskers recorded just 12 touchbacks in eight games, a rate of 30%; that’s 81st nationally and 10th in the Big Ten. Culp handled all 40 kickoffs in 2020, but Nebraska could look elsewhere to fill that role in 2021.
“We are constantly evaluating that,” Dawson said. “We’ve had some guys on campus the last few weeks. We’re always looking at those types of things … You’ve got to have a good plan for it and to me, no one wants the ball 40 rows deep in the stands and through the uprights on the kickoff [more than me]. You see those deals happen and you’re pretty excited. I’m certainly one of those guys. You have to have a guy that’s got a strong leg, and sometimes it comes from your kicker but honestly, most of the time it maybe comes from somewhere else — punter, maybe it’s a guy that isn’t necessarily a great field goal guy, but it could come from a few different avenues. I’ve seen that happen a couple different ways.”
The Huskers recently picked up a commitment from Iowa Western Community College kicker Josh Jasek and also hosted Morningside kicker Brendan Franke for a tryout in mid-June. The Gretna graduate booted 35 touchbacks for the Mustangs last season. Ord product Kelen Meyer, a member of Nebraska’s 2021 preferred walk-on class, is also on campus, though Dawson hasn’t had a chance to really see what he can do yet as a summer enrollee.
“The incoming guys, you always have very high hopes but I’m always very cautious until I get my hands on these guys and you can say, ‘OK, yeah,’” Dawson said. “You know what you want, and that happens with any recruit — you think this, this and this and we want to be able to rely on a guy that’s coming in, but once he’s on campus, you went through a training camp, make it through more than one or two practices before you kind of see ‘Hey, this is what’s going on with a guy.’ But fingers crossed.”
Nebraska’s punting efficiency was even worse than its kickoff efficiency, however. William Przystup handled the majority of the punts — 24 of them — and averaged just 41.3 yards per punt. Tyler Crawford, listed as a place kicker on the roster, recorded seven punts but wasn’t any better at 39.1 yards per punt. Perhaps the easy solution is simply good health for Daniel Cerni, the only specialist on the roster on scholarship who missed last season with an injury.
Nebraska kick return was even worse than its kickoffs last season. As a team, Nebraska was 94th in kick return average at 18.3 yards per game. Freshman Alante Brown took over as the primary returner and averaged 19.6 yards on 10 returns. Rahmir Johnson and Brody Belt combined to average 15.6 yards on five returns.
Dawson declined to single out any players by name that have caught his eye as potential difference-makers on any of the special teams units, but he did say he likes the overall talent pool from which he can draw between key veterans, young players looking to get on the field early and walk-ons searching for a way to make an impact on the program.
“We have a big group of guys and we have a lot of walk-ons that are really attacking and embracing the opportunity to possibly get on the field through the special teams avenue,” Dawson said. “That special teams depth chart is always changing and there are a lot of guys that are working pretty hard at it.
“I’m going to be exciting to see who puts the true work in throughout this summer and gets into training camp and really takes the next step.”
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.