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Reimagining the Special Teams Role on Nebraska’s Coaching Staff

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There’s more to it than just saying “hire a special teams coach.”

Northern Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Nebraska’s continuing struggles with special teams are nothing new; it’s a problem that predated Scott Frost. (Remember Bruce Read and his $450,000 salary?) Nebraska has tried multiple coaches over the years to take charge...and for the most part fail at the job.

  • 2021: Mike Dawson
  • 2020: Jonathan Rutledge
  • 2018-19: Jovan DeWitt
  • 2017: Scott Booker
  • 2015-16: Bruce “450K” Read
  • 2012-14: Ross Els
  • 2008-11: John Papuchis

I’d argue that every special teams coach since Papuchis has been roundly criticized, though some might look better now, in retrospect. (Ross Els, for example.) If Nebraska decides to go another direction for special teams after this season, I have to believe that it’ll require other changes on the coaching staff.

First of all, I’m not sure there’s another person already on the staff to simply transfer the special teams responsibility to. And perhaps more importantly, hiring a new special teams coach has to be a “zero sum” action. NCAA rules limit schools to ten full-time assistants, so adding a new coach requires an existing coach to leave his role. That’s why Scott Frost tried the analyst role to bring Jonathan Rutledge on board to set the schemes and trust the rest of the staff to implement them. It didn’t work, so it was back to the drawing board.

And maybe it’s not the coaches, but rather how Nebraska chooses to spend their practice time. Perhaps more time needs to be spent on special teams, with less time on the other offensive/defensive drills. That could have other consequences, so that’s a choice to make very carefully. The bottom line is that special teams is clearly one of the two biggest problems with Nebraska football in 2021, and resolving it is urgent.

So if Frost decides to bring in a new assistant to take over special teams, he has to figure out who’s going to depart, and that’s a tough decision. I dare say that considering how well the defense is playing, keeping the staff on that side of the ball intact probably should be a priority.

If I were Frost looking to make a change, I’d come up with a list of the top 25 or so special teams coaches that would be candidates to come to Lincoln. I’d also determine whether I would prefer a full-time special teams coach (remember, that didn’t work with Bruce Read) or whether you’d like that coach to be assigned another position. Parallel to that, I’d develop a cross-reference of how staff responsibilities would be reassigned if a particular assistant were eliminated.

For example, if Mario Verduzco’s role were to be eliminated, who would take over the responsibility of quarterbacks? Would it be offensive coordinator Matt Lubick? Or keep it with the head coach? Or do you try to retain Verduzco as an offensive analyst who tutors quarterbacks in his offense, but stays off the field during practices and games? It’s a exercise you repeat for each and every non-coordinator position on the staff.

Once you have that, you then match up who the best candidate for this role who meshes well with the opening you are going to have to create on the staff. And because the top candidate might not want to jump to Nebraska, he’ll have to have two or three backups to consider. It’s very much a game with multiple moving parts, and rather complicated.

Bottom line: it’s easy to say “hire a dedicated special teams coach.” It’s difficult to do it right because you have to (a) make sure you are NOT hiring another Bruce Read and (b) make sure the hole you are opening up in the staff doesn’t have other unintended consequences.