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NU's senior special teams analyst no longer part of program; unit struggled mightily in 2020
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HUSKER FOOTBALL

NU's senior special teams analyst no longer part of program; unit struggled mightily in 2020

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Nebraska vs. Rutgers, 12.18

Rutgers' Aron Cruickshank returns a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown during the third quarter against Nebraska on Dec. 18, 2020, in Piscataway, New Jersey. 

Jonathan Rutledge, who just completed his first season as senior special teams analyst for the Nebraska football team, is no longer with the program, a source told the Journal Star on Thursday.

He directed a special teams operation that struggled mightily in 2020.

A Mississippi native, Rutledge wasn't one of Nebraska's 10 full-time, on-field assistants this season. Not long after hiring Rutledge last February, Husker coach Scott Frost emphasized Rutledge's expertise in special teams.

"We’re going to try this,” Frost said in March. “I didn’t really want to burden someone like Coach (Mike) Dawson with making sure our outside linebackers improved and running all four special teams. That’s a heavy role, so I wanted somebody that could do the X’s and O’s and schematics off the field for our special teams and really train our coaches to go out and implement it with our players. 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.” 

In finishing the season with a 3-5 record, Nebraska was 111th nationally in net punting. The Huskers allowed opponents to average 12.17 yards on punt returns (103rd). In addition, NU placed only eight punts inside the 20-yard line.

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Iowa and Northwestern both dinged Frost's crew with sizable punt returns. The Huskers lost close games in both cases in part because of poor special-teams play all around.

Nebraska finished 94th nationally in kickoff returns with an average of 18.27 yards per return. That's just slightly better than 2019, when NU averaged 18.13 (107th nationally).

Meanwhile, Nebraska's opponents averaged 22.64 yards on kickoff returns (87th). Rutgers' Aron Cruickshank roared 98 yards for a touchdown in NU's season-ending victory in Piscataway, New Jersey. The Huskers won that game despite shoddy special-teams play — for instance, they allowed Rutgers punter Zach Feagles to run for 17 yards on a fake punt.

It was the second time that happened to Nebraska this season. Illinois punter Blake Hayes gained 14 yards on a fourth-and-8 after he looked up and saw nothing but open field.

Nebraska did show marked improvement in field goals, with Connor Culp going 13-for-15 with a long of 49 yards. It appears Culp will return in 2021 for another senior season.

Nebraska also received significant special-teams help from junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who returned six punts for 79 yards, an average of 13.17. Taylor-Britt's work was the impetus to NU finishing 14th nationally in that category. 

But Rutledge apparently didn't have the sort of impact that Frost desired. The Nebraska coach was hoping for the type of success that Rutledge experienced in his previous stops. For instance, he guided Auburn's special teams to top 15 rankings by Football Outsiders in both 2018 and 2019. He also had ample success in two seasons at Missouri.

Rutledge did not immediately respond to a Journal Star message on Thursday.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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