Most of Nebraska’s offseason staffing changes concerned the offensive side of the ball, but Tony Tuioti’s departure also led to a new (and also old) role for Mike Dawson.
During Dawson’s first stint in Lincoln, he served as the defensive line coach. When he returned to the staff in 2020, he did so as the outside linebackers coach. Now, with Tuioti leaving for Oregon, Dawson will coach both positions.
“The adjustment back to defensive line’s been pretty smooth,” Dawson said on the first day of spring practice. “I knew most of the guys either from coaching them that first year or recruiting going into the second year there. So I had a pretty good understanding and relationship with most of the guys. So that part’s been pretty good. The biggest adjustment is getting back with a bigger group now, with at least double and maybe more guys in the room. So, that piece of it, there’s certainly a little more to that. But it’s a great group of guys that really want to work and get better so that transition has been pretty smooth.”
Over the last couple of years, Nebraska’s defense has evolved to where the base formation includes two true defensive linemen flanked by two outside linebackers on the line, forming an even front. With that being the case, having one coach in charge of both position groups made sense.
“It’s having the same voice for the front four, getting the same vocabulary, getting the same plan of what we want to do, having that vocabulary kind of be consistent through the whole group instead of having two voices is really nice with the flow of everything,” Garrett Nelson said. “When it comes to game time, into the fall with plans we want to do, how we want to attack things, I think that’s going to help a ton just having one voice. Dawson, with the shifting responsibilities, I think he’ll be fine. He’s been doing this longer than I’ve been alive, so I’m not worried about it.”
Dawson said he and Tuioti had a good working relationship and shared a similar approach, so the shift shouldn’t be too dramatic for the players. However, Dawson does think the change might help the players better understand the total picture up front.
“When they hear in the same room, ’Oh, hey, not only do we want you to do this particular assignment, but this is why and oh, by the way, this is what the guy next to you is doing,’” Dawson said. “So now you see how the puzzle fits together rather than ‘Hey, you do this and you do that,’ and then we meet in the middle. Now they kind of understand, ‘All right, he’s going to be doing that, I’m going to be doing this, now that makes my job a little bit easier.’ So I think that part of it will be good for us moving on.”
One challenge Dawson will have to navigate this spring is a lack of depth with the big guys up front. Nebraska has just eight defensive linemen on campus (seven on scholarship plus walk-on Colton Feist), and that includes Casey Rogers who will miss the spring. That means everybody in the room will get plenty of reps this spring, but it also means Dawson will have to be smart with how he divvies up reps and forms practice plans.
“We’ll take a lot of time looking at the team reps, ‘Hey, this is the rotation,’ and sometimes we change personnel groupings so maybe we need one more or one less on the field or something like that, having that all detailed out ahead of time, so those guys knew this morning,” Dawson said. “I had planned all the reps out, there were no surprise reps. We knew on every single play who was going to be in the game and who wasn’t going to be in the game so that way, you’re not going at the end of practice, ‘Oh, man, this guy had 50 reps, and this guy only had 20.’ So, as long as you do a good job planning that out I think it’s pretty manageable.”
Rogers is the veteran in the room, and although he won’t be able to participate on the field Dawson still expects him to be locked in this spring mentally and helping the younger players along.
“The good thing about Casey is he’s got a super outgoing personality, so it’s easy for him to interact with guys, it’s easy for him to stay engaged,” Dawson said. “The trick for him is don’t get bored. You have to be there and it’s not going to be as fun. I’ve been there when you’re not coaching or playing, those practices tend to seem like they last a lot longer; when you’re playing or coaching, they go by too fast. But the big part for him will be just to be able to stay focused, gain the mental reps, watch somebody else make mistakes and then make sure that he doesn’t repeat them when he comes back.”
The other veteran in the defensive line room is Ty Robinson, who the Huskers are counting on to make a leap with Ben Stille, Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas moving on. Dawson helped recruit Robinson during his first stint in Lincoln, but he left for the New York Giants before Robinson made it to campus. Now, a few years later, he’ll finally get a chance to coach the 6-foot-6, 305-pound former 4-star recruit.
“It’s exciting for me,” Dawson said. “I think potential is through the roof with Ty, and he takes it very personally, he’s very passionate about it. I knew that about him from the recruiting process. So being able to get him to take that next step and to see him kind of — similar to where Garrett was a couple years ago where he’s passionate and he’s trying but kind of just all over the map to now starting to get to be ‘OK, I’ve done this before.’ He’s starting to understand that. He’s got reps that he’s banked in games and been in true football situations. So I think that for him to take that next step is going to be huge for us this this offseason.”
Once you get past Robinson and Rogers, the experience level on the line drop-off a cliff. Dawson has a lot of work to do this spring building up sophomores Nash Hutmacher, Mosai Newsom and redshirt freshman Marquis Black, Jailen Weaver and Ru’Quan Buckley, but Robinson said the linemen have already adjusted to his coaching style. As for the outside ‘backers, it’s business as usual with returning starters Nelson and Caleb Tannor leading the way.