Coach Scott Frost announced on Monday that outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson has taken on the role of special teams coordinator this season. Dawson confirmed that the whole staff will continue to be involved, but he’s looking forward to more hands-on teaching.
“We had a few conversations about it and our staff’s pretty hands on with it, all of our guys,” Dawson said. “It’s not like we go to special teams and then everyone goes and drinks Gatorade and stands on the side and one or two guys are coaching. Our guys are pretty hands on, we’ve been that way, I think most of us grew up coaching that way. It was a pretty easy transition that way, more organizing and getting to be up in front of the room, which is great.
“I love that I can be in contact and touch different position groups than I normally would. I think that’s one of the exciting parts about doing special teams is I get to build relationships with other defensive positions, DBs, or maybe the tight ends or things like that.”
First order of business for Dawson? Hone in on the basics and really hammer them home.
“The biggest thing is with every phase of this game, if your techniques and fundamentals aren’t great then you’re not going to have a chance for success,” Dawson said. “When I was in Philadelphia with the Eagles, Dave Fipp, who does an unbelievable job and has been a long-time NFL special teams coordinator, he spent more time on techniques and fundamentals by far and away than scheme. So if we fix our techniques, fundamentals, bring the intensity that goes with it and what you need, I think then we’ll be able to do better with the special teams.”
Transitioning from having an off-field analyst coordinate special teams back to an on-field coach allows the Huskers eliminate a middle man situation, which benefits both players and coaches.
“It’s great to be able to kind of get up and line up with a guy and be able to get your hands on him so to speak as far as ‘Hey, this is your step, these are your techniques,’ and you’re really right up on him instead of going through a guy or something like that,” Dawson said. “You get a chance to be face-to-face and he can hear what you’re saying a little bit better and you can learn the guys and how they learn and kind of alter your teaching to be able to help those guys each individually.”
Tight ends coach Sean Beckton said he and the other assistants are ready to support Dawson in his new role any way they can, something they didn’t do a good enough job of last year in his mind.
“To me, it’s all the same,” Beckton said. “I’ve been coaching for a long time and the assistant coaches really help the special teams coaching. Last year I don’t think, as a collective staff, we did a great job assisting and doing our job. We’re putting that on us. We’re not going to blame Coach Frost on everything. That’s on us as assistants. Our job with Coach Dawson this year is to really get that phase of special teams cleaned up. My job and the rest of the coaches’ jobs is — we lost too many games on special teams. We’ve got to do a better job as coaches. We’re not putting it on the kids, it’s on us. We’re going to demand those guys to be perfect in everything that they’re doing so we can have better special teams and win games.”
According to Football Outsiders’ special teams rankings, Nebraska was 106th in net field position, 118th in kickoff return efficiency, 113th in kickoff efficiency and 118th in punt efficiency.
“I just think that we didn’t put forth our best effort,” Beckton said. “That’s on us. We’re paid to coach. Coach gives us an assignment, we’ve got to do our jobs, simple as that. Just like me not coaching the tight ends. If I’m coaching the special teams unit, which I had a group last year, we didn’t get it done. Coach Dawson coming back in this year, we’re going to be better on special teams, bar none. The tempo has been set from day one in our meetings for special teams. We’re going to be better.”
One area that needs to see immediate improvement is punting as the Huskers were 12th in the Big Ten in average last year at just under 40 yards per punt. Daniel Cerni should factor into that competition this year as he has returned from the injury that kept him sidelined all last season.
“It’s been two quick days and pretty windy,” Dawson said. “Good spring Nebraska weather. Some look great and catch a tail wind, some maybe otherwise. But just like anyone else coming off injury and things like that, it’s going to take a little bit to get back into it but he’s working hard. These guys are hungry to get their name right and kind of earn their stripes too.”
Cerni is the first Aussie-style punter Dawson has coached, but he said adapting is the nature of the business when it comes to coaching. His first-ever responsibility as a coach was to learn how to long-snap so that he could coach up the snappers at his first job.
“I also know enough to know that that’s a different position; those guys really are truly specialists, hence the name, so a lot of times you don’t want to mess with a guy too much,” Dawson said. “It’d be like messing with a golf pro. All of a sudden maybe thy have one round that didn’t go how they want and you want to try to reinvent their golf swing. Well, that’s not going to do any good so you need to be cognizant and aware of that with these guys.”
Nebraska was also 13th in kickoff average at 57.2 and 10th in touchback percentage at 30%. Dawson said he’d always prefer to kick it through the end zone against a team with a dangerous returner, but sometimes the weather conditions make that difficult and that Huskers don’t currently have someone who can consistently reach the end zone regardless of conditions.
“The reality is, and my last stop with Boston College, we were similar up there as well where you’d love to have that and be able to knock the ball out of the end zone, but you’ve also got to be able to cover kicks and that’s going to be a big emphasis for us,” Dawson said. “The most important phase right now — you have to be able to punt when you need to, protect and then cover and then the same thing with kickoff.”
As for the other end of the spectrum, Dawson said the competition for the return spots is wide open and he declined to name anybody in particular. Alante Brown was the primary kickoff returner with 10 returns for 196 yards. Rahmir Johnson and Brody Belt combined fo five returns and 78 yards. Cam Taylor-Britt was the primary punt returner with six returns for 79 yards.
“We’re working a bunch of guys,” Dawson said. “It’s one of the great things about having the roster size that we have, we have a lot of guys and it’s going to be a big competition. I hope the guys that have experience use that to their advantage and incorporate that into their training, and then that will make them better as they go along. Then the younger guys that are hungry for that position, I want them to fight and be able to go ahead and take steps up that ladder too. So hopefully that competition is going to breed the guys getting better and better at what they’re doing.”
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.