Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Special Teams Needs to Change Amidst an Absence of Change

January 24, 2021

Scott Frost sat down with the two local newspapers this weekend and the prevailing message from that conversation was that everything is fine, Nebraska is showing progress, and worry about the program’s direction after a 12-20 start to the Frost tenure is much ado about nothing. 

One interesting nugget to come out of the weekend was that Frost will not be making changes to his 10-man assistant coaching staff, which also means Nebraska will once again place special teams in charge of someone who can’t coach on the field. 

A quick refresher: Jovan Dewitt, brought from UCF by Frost to Nebraska, coached the outside linebackers and coordinated the special teams in 2018 and 2019. He left following the 2019 season to take the same position at North Carolina. Mike Dawson replaced Dewitt as the outside linebackers coach, but did not take on the dual responsibility of special teams coordinator. Nebraska instead opted to hire Jonathan Rutledge as a senior special teams analyst. 

Rutledge and Nebraska officially “parted ways” on Jan. 14, less than one calendar year after he was hired. The Huskers have a job posting on their employment website for a position with the same title Rutledge held. Nebraska can’t hire an assistant to manage special teams without first losing one of the already-employed 10. Alternatively, it could give the title to someone already on the staff and do some reshuffling, which seems unlikely. 

Depending on how a few vacant coaching spots across the country are filled out in the coming weeks, Nebraska could be one of only nine or 10 Power 5 programs in the country to not have a full-time assistant managing special teams. 

“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 brief radio spot last week. “I’m looking forward to trying to identify the right guy to come in and really get our guys bought in to special teams and improve in some areas where we weren’t good enough.” 

Compare that to what Frost said when the Huskers hired Rutledge last year:

“There were a lot of guys that were interested in the job. We wanted to find the right guy,” Frost said in the spring of 2020. “There were a bunch of good coaches. We wanted someone that fit with kind of our culture of the coaching staff as well. Really liked Rutledge’s pedigree, where he has been, the type of person he is. Just being a family guy. I think he is going to fit in real well. We are going to try this.

“I didn’t really want to burden someone like Coach Dawson with making sure our outside linebackers improved and running all four special teams. 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.”

Interesting to hear the role described as a “burden,” though Frost will probably contend that’s reading too much into his words. But the coach has said time and again over his first three seasons that special teams is important to him. It’s a phase of the game that has to matter. When Frost went to the NFL during his playing days, special teams had to be a place he committed himself to. 

When I spoke with Athletic Director Bill Moos after the season, special teams was an area he identified as needing improvement in the new year, and an area he said he’d spoken with Frost about. “These are mental things that have got to be addressed, and it’s all part of discipline,” Moos said. 

Without a full-time assistant responsible for that phase of the game, the burden falls to the head coach. 

So, too, does any failure.

Rutledge, per the language of his position, can’t offer on-field instruction. He can teach in the meeting room, but he can’t coach on the field. He can’t ensure that what’s being said is what’s being done.

It seems a unique way to go. Just recently, new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian lured away his former coworker—Jeff Banks from Alabama—with a $1 million salary to coordinate the Longhorns’ special teams. Banks will also coach tight ends, but that’s a hefty chunk of change for a special teams guy. Putting your money where your mouth is? Every coach says special teams has to matter. Some walk the walk just as much as they talk the talk.

Curious how common it was to manage the third phase of the game with a quality control specialist or an analyst, I looked at the coaching staffs for the 64 Power Five programs and Notre Dame.

Fifty-three (53) of them have a full-time, on-field assistant handling special teams. Nineteen (19) of those guys are “Special Teams Coordinators” only, no dual responsibility. It’s more common to find a special teams coordinator that also manages a position room, and, for the most part, those guys tend to be tight ends coaches or linebacker coaches (59% of the remaining 34).

That was Dewitt. During his first year in Lincoln, the Husker special teams unit had an efficiency quotient that ranked 80th nationally in Bill Connelly’s SP+ system. The same system ranked Nebraska’s special teams unit 124th nationally the following year. Dewitt’s departure was thought to be best for both sides.

Rutledge’s unit ranked 93rd in his first year.

Currently there are only 12 Power Five programs among the 65 who don’t have an on-field assistant coach handling special teams. 

Four of them are in-between guys. Alabama has yet to hire a new special teams coach as of publication, but it has the ability to. Maryland is also in the market after its special teams coordinator in 2020 took a job on the Michigan coaching staff. Nebraska makes three, and Tennessee is TBD until it settles on a head coach.

Four more employ quality control guys who oversee things—Syracuse, Iowa State, Kansas State, and Colorado.

Three programs go the route of the analyst—Oklahoma, Baylor, and Texas A&M.

TCU, according to someone familiar with their program, uses a by-committee approach and doesn’t have any one person oversee the unit. They ranked 49th in SP+ last year. The number for the group of have-nots would look like a scatter plot if charted, and their rankings didn’t necessarily correlate with winning. Syracuse at 1-10 ranked fourth. Big 12 runner-up Iowa State, at 9-3, was 125th. If you’re great elsewhere (the Cyclones were) you can minimize the damage of a harmful special teams unit. 

It’ll still bite you, as it did the Cyclones against Louisiana, but maybe Syracuse shows it can’t drastically raise your ceiling. In relation to the offensive and defensive snaps faced, we’re talking about limited exposure here. 

In that sense, Frost going with another analyst doesn’t immediately foretell more struggles for the unit in 2021.

But it does lead to a question worth asking: why is Nebraska making a new hire in the first place? Why was Rutledge relieved of his duties only to be replaced with the same kind of coach?

Nebraska had the Big Ten’s Kicker of the Year in Connor Culp, a player Rutledge was directly responsible for bringing to Lincoln. Daniel Cerni, a scholarship punter handpicked by Rutledge, missed the entire season with an injury. Kick return (terrible) and punt return (great) were a wash. Nebraska ranked 115th nationally in kickoff efficiency and 118th in punt efficiency, which were most responsible for one of the 20 worst net field position marks in the country. 

If Cerni’s available, certainly Rutledge feels like the punting improves, and based on his track record with Aussies we’d have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Which leaves you with finding a kickoff specialist. 

Rutledge’s career so far suggests his units follow up a so-so season in terms of efficiency his first year in charge with a massive leap forward his second. 

Why does the offense get excuses for underperforming but the special teams coach loses his job in 11 months after statistical improvement? Only to be replaced with a guy who will have the same limitations as his predecessor. All while touting that special teams has to matter. 

Frost operating as an outlier to his Power Five peers isn’t new. His Nebraska tenure to this point has been built on the bedrock belief he can do things his way and others will have to adjust to him. 

So far, that hasn’t proven to be true. Nebraska has lived on the margins. Will a personnel change immediately yield the expected result on special teams? It’s possible. Maybe Frost knows something his 50 or so Power Five peers don’t.

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