Dawson, Husker coaches put ST improvement on their own shoulders: ‘There’s no other choice’

Rutgers’ Aron Cruickshank returns a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown during the third quarter against Nebraska on Dec. 18 in Piscataway, New Jersey. 

Mike Dawson has seen special teams coached in a couple of different ways during his first two seasons on staff at Nebraska.

In 2018. when he was the defensive line coach, outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt served as the coordinator. In 2020, after a one-year stint in the NFL, Dawson returned to Nebraska — as the outside linebackers coach, coincidentally — and had Jonathan Rutledge as a senior special teams analyst.

The analyst route did not work the way head coach Scott Frost hoped and Rutledge was fired after the season.

Now, Dawson himself will be in charge.

“When the boss asks you to do a job, you don’t typically say no,” he said with a smile on Wednesday morning at Memorial Stadium.

Dawson has a long history coaching special teams, so this should be a natural transition. Really, NU’s full-time assistant coaches have always been involved in special teams and will continue to be. Tight ends coach Sean Beckton made it clear on Wednesday that improvement starts with the coaching staff.

“Last year, I don’t think as a collective staff we did a great job of assisting and doing our job,” Beckton said. “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 special teams cleaned up. My job, and the rest of the coaches’ jobs, is to make sure we get that done. We lost too many games around here because of the special-teams part. We have 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 the things they’re doing so we can have better special teams.”

Frost on Monday indicated that his line coaches — Greg Austin on offense and Tony Tuioti on defense — will oversee field goal and field goal block and Dawson will run the rest.

“Our staff is pretty hands on with it and all of our guys, it’s not like we go to special teams (periods at practice) and then (the coaches) go to the sideline and drink Gatorade and one or two guys are out there coaching,” he said. “It’s 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 it is getting to build relationships with the DBs or the tight ends and things like that.”

Nebraska needs to improve across the board. It finished 111th nationally in net punting and allowed 12.17 yards per return (No. 103 nationally). It finished No. 94 in kick return yardage (18.27) and No. 87 nationally in kick return yardage allowed (22.64). Critically, the Huskers allowed kick return touchdowns against Iowa and Rutgers, the second straight year NU has given up multiple return scores. They also had multiple breakdowns, allowing first downs on fake punts against Illinois and Rutgers.

Dawson said he’s never worked with an Aussie-style punter like freshman Daniel Cerni before, but said the adjustment should be a smooth one. Overall, his philosophy is pretty simple.

“The big thing is with every phase of this game, if your techniques and fundamentals aren’t great, you’re not going to have a chance at success,” Dawson said. “When I was in Philadelphia with the Eagles, Dave Phipp, who does an unbelievable job and has been a longtime NFL special teams coordinator, he spent more time on technique and fundamentals by far and away than on scheme.

“So we fix our techniques and fundamentals, bring the intensity that goes along with it and I think we’ll be able to grow and get better on special teams.”

Beckton said it was up to the assistants to “back” Dawson in those efforts, and secondary coach Travis Fisher added that he delivered a message to the 20 or so players in his position group Tuesday.

“I don’t care who it is in the room, if it’s a walk-on or a scholarship kid, you have to start on at least one special teams (unit) to be a DB here. Period. All right? Or you will not play,” he said. “That’s just the culture. Just trying to build the culture with the guys and the importance of special teams because it’s a matter of a ‘W’ or an ‘L.’ They’ve been watching that.

“Coach Dawson is doing a great job of setting the culture of the room and then me, I’m basically echoing that in my room by holding my guys accountable for being on special teams.”

Coaches and players alike know change is needed in order to turn a liability into a strength — or at least a break-even point.

“We need to get better at everything,” Dawson said. “Our goal is to improve. We are not going to stay the same. There’s no other choice, because we’re not going backward.”