Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker JoJo Domann ready for the play to start against Illinois
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Mike Dawson Offers Progress Report on Outside Linebacker Room

November 26, 2020

Outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson joined Greg Sharpe for this week’s edition of the Sports Nightly Nebraska Football Show. In addition to discussing the team’s Black Friday match-up with Iowa, Dawson also provided a progress report on a handful of guys in his room.

>> Thus far, senior JoJo Domann has been a guy who hasn’t come off the field for the Blackshirts in any situation and he’s leading the team in tackles for loss with 5.0.

“He plays on defense and then he’s out there on some of the special teams,” Dawson said. “I think he’s increased his game, certainly. He’s made some big plays. He’s had his fair share of tackles for losses. He’s been smart — he had a great pick-up on a tight end screen, something we had kind of talked about throughout the week heading into the Northwestern game that ended up being a big play at a point where we kind of had those guys stymied a little bit at least. So he’s grasping that stuff and he keeps on getting better at his craft and doing what he’s doing.”

>> After playing in a reserve role off the bench as a true freshman, Garrett Nelson has been a starter for the Huskers early on this season. Dawson said he was almost too eager to learn last year, trying to skip pass the 100 level classes because he wanted to know what the “800-level guys were learning right off the bat.”

“He’s done a really good job this year of going back and starting from the beginning,” Dawson said. “Last year he got thrown in there and he was playing as a true freshman and that’s not easy to do, in particular at the line, linebacker, tight end positions, especially in this league. There was some room to kind of go back and say, ‘OK, let’s reset this a little bit. Now that you’ve got your feet wet on it, let’s reset this and kind of start building this thing the right way.’ I think he’s done a good job. When you watch him play, there’s no one throwing their body around more than he is and flying around. He’s doing a good job with that and trying to minimize his errors while at the same time getting a little bit more physical at the point of attack.

“We talk about striking in our room, when you’re putting your hands on a guy. I think there are times where, and he’d be the first one to point out, ‘I should have had a better base there, I could have had my hands a little bit tighter there and take some back.’ But I think he’s done a much better job of setting the edge and being able to strike people this year.”

>> The starter across from Nelson — with Domann playing the hybrid nickel position — is junior Caleb Tannor. The former 4-star recruit hasn’t quite turned into the star pass-rusher the Huskers believe he cane be, but Dawson said he has seen some progress so far this season.

“Caleb is a guy that when he gets going and gets on the edge I think he has a chance to be a pretty good rusher,” Dawson said. “The production hasn’t come, and we also have been behind in a couple games now where I think that if we can get ourselves into a little bit better position on third down as a defense we can crank up the pass rush a little bit and he’s a guy that I think, at least in this first couple games anyway, I saw him kind of coming with a little bit more speed off the edge. He had a couple conversions off a couple pretty good play-actions against Northwestern where he was maybe a step or two away from having pretty big play.

“He’s a guy that’s working on getting more physical in his game, because that’s been a point of emphasis even in February when I first came back. We’ve got to get more physical at the point of attack and it’s something that he’s working on that he knows, hey, you’ve got to be more physical on first and second downs to be able to put yourself into a third-and-longer situation so now you can use your assets and your strengths to be able to go ahead and rush the quarterback. If he can put all those pieces of it together, then you’re going to have yourself a pretty good edge man.”

>> Redshirt freshman Nick Henrich started at outside linebacker, but he’s spent all his snaps on the edge this season, and Dawson said he’s brought a lot of energy to his room.

“You saw him in the game the other day involved with a, the ball was on the right hash and he was playing that left end position rushing the quarterback and the ball swung out there, and you pick your head up, he’s on the sideline getting involved in the tackle,” Dawson said. “It’s great to have versatility. He’s a smart guy, he’s a football junkie, loves to learn and study it. Those things are going to benefit him down the road, whether he’s playing inside or outside. We talk about him as a four-position guy in this defense — you can play the two inside spots and the two outside spots … He’s a guy that I’m excited to continue to work with.”

>> Pheldarius Payne played defensive end in junior college, but the coaches at Nebraska have moved him to outside linebacker and he’s give the defense a spark at that position at times.

“He’s a guy that was too explosive, when he kind of started off practice as an interior rusher, not to try to take a look at him as an edge rusher … He’s learning it and kind of grasping being on the edge and playing with a little bit more space,” Dawson said. “But he’s a guy that has a high motor that runs around and I’m just going to tell you, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever been around. Just a great demeanor, a pleasure to be around.”

>> One guy who has only appeared on special teams so far but that popped off the screen in a big way against Illinois is another junior college transfer in Niko Cooper.

“He’s been a good guy in the room and a good guy to continue to progress … He’s doing a nice job on special teams,” Dawson said. “He does a great job of bringing speed and excitement running down the field and he’s a guy that’s going to continue to progress and keep on getting reps and keep on getting comfortable being out there … If you took a picture of him, you’d say yeah, that’s what you want an outside linebacker too look like. He’s a big, long frame, he’s got big, giant hands and he’s got great strength once he gets to you and once he gets his hands on you.

“I think it’s just a matter of time with him as far as soaking it in and continuing to get that game experience on special teams is going to be invaluable for him and then being able to get him cranked up and get him out there a little bit more on defense as well.”

>> Finally, a listener sent a text in asking about the true freshmen Dawson has in his room. Nebraska signed two outside linebackers in the 2020 class — Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler.

“We have a couple guys that are true freshmen that are coming along, getting a little bit with Zach Duval; I think that’s  important for the true freshmen … Blaise and Jimari are both really good guys in the room, both good learners and both guys that are doing a good job of working out with our strength staff,” Dawson said. “At the same time, what’s impressed me about both of the guys is even though they’re not part of the game plan or playing on a week-to-week basis, the two of them sit in the middle of the front row at meetings and have immaculate notes and do a great job of learning from the other guys and ask really good football questions.”

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