LINCOLN — Luckily for Mike Dawson, he was home when Chip Kelly called that late Friday night.
It had been 13 months since Dawson stepped away from coaching for a quieter life. First time in 15 years he wasn’t constantly on planes recruiting or up late editing film. In December 2011, Dawson resigned as special teams coordinator at Boston College. After nine jobs at six schools over 13 years, Dawson thought maybe a slow life could be a nice change.
So he moved back home to Pepperell, Massachusetts, about an hour outside Boston, and for 11 months served as the athletic director at his alma mater, North Middlesex High School. He wasn’t looking for other jobs. He was just getting used to life inside a high school.
Then his phone rang.
“And truthfully,” Dawson said, “I really feel like Chip kind of bailed me out from derailing my career.”
Kelly had just accepted the Philadelphia Eagles’ coaching job and wanted Dawson to join him. The two were close. They met in the early 2000s on the New Hampshire staff, Kelly as the offensive coordinator and Dawson a linebackers coach and eventual defensive coordinator.
Kelly wanted him to be a defensive assistant, help out with the defensive line.
You don’t tell Chip Kelly no, Dawson said, so he uprooted his life and moved to Philly to spend three transformative seasons with the Eagles. And that job did two things for his career, Dawson said: It brought it back from the dead and set him on a path to Nebraska to join coach Scott Frost’s staff.
“I’d work with Coach Kelly no matter where it’d be,” Dawson said last week. “I was happy and lucky enough to get on his staff and that experience for me in the three years, I mean, the Eagles organization was great to me and it was incredibly valuable.”
Dawson got his start in football at Massachusetts as a three-year starting linebacker. He graduated in 1997 and began stints all across the Northeast and Midwest from 1998 to 2011. Maine, Pittsburgh, New Hampshire, Akron, Boston College. His accent is mostly gone, but still comes out to play when he says words like “back” and “fast.”
He’ll now take over a Nebraska defensive line that wasn’t very effective a season ago. In Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense, the Huskers gave up 5.6 yards per rush and 214.8 rushing yards per game . As a team, Nebraska amassed only 14 sacks.
At Central Florida under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and Dawson, the line was far more aggressive in the 3-4 front. As a team, UCF had 27 total sacks. The defensive line alone had 12. Defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman led the line with 4.5 sacks in 2017. Pittman was second on the team to All-American Shaquem Griffin’s seven. NU’s sack leader on the line was Carlos Davis with 2.5 .
Up front in 2017 the Knights also kept opponents to 1.4 fewer yards per rush than Nebraska and 55 fewer rushing yards per game.
In UCF’s Rise and Conquer YouTube series, defensive lineman AJ Wooten said part of the success is due to Dawson’s tone.
“He’s a really hard guy I would say, but he’s fair,” Wooten said. “We always try and do everything exactly how he says it because we know that’s the right way to do it. We all want to go to the league, so we know following in his footsteps will bring us to the league because he’s taught in the league before and he knows what he’s talking about.”
In 2014 as the Eagles’ assistant defensive line coach, Dawson coached ends Connor Barwin to 14.5 sacks and Vinny Curry to nine. In 2015, three-time Pro-Bowler Fletcher Cox had his best year with 9.5 sacks with Dawson.
“I can’t tell you how much I learned from that experience,” Dawson said of coaching NFL linemen. “It was really awesome.”
In 2013, Chinander took his first full-time coaching position with the Eagles as a defensive line assistant. He and Dawson worked together for a year and struck up a friendship, Dawson said. Chinander left for Oregon in 2014, then followed Frost to UCF in December 2015.
Around the same time UCF hired Frost, the Eagles let Dawson and the Kelly coaching staff go following a 7-9 season.
Chinander gave Frost Dawson’s name, and Dawson flew to Orlando for an interview.
“I got a chance to go down and meet (Frost) and was absolutely on board after about three minutes of conversation,” Dawson said. “What a great guy he is, how genuine he is, and I said, ‘Yeah I could absolutely work for this guy.’”
Which is why following Frost to Lincoln was a no-brainer for Dawson. Just like Kelly and the Eagles, you don’t say no to Scott Frost.
“When he took this job and asked me to come along I said, ‘I’d follow you to coach anywhere,’” Dawson said. “We’re lucky that it’s Lincoln.”
Dawson has met Nebraska’s defensive linemen, but just briefly. He likes the players. He is itching to get to know them and start putting in a scheme. He — like the rest of the staff — is running on fumes after weeks recruiting for NU and coaching UCF in the Peach Bowl. Some time off will be nice, he said, but he also suspects it won’t really be time off.
“I think we’re all a little too antsy to start to get rolling with the Cornhuskers here to take too much time off. I think they call it active recovery where you’re resting but still doing stuff,” Dawson said. “We’re very fortunate. We have great jobs. We’re lucky to do what we do. I look forward to going to work every day and working with Coach (Frost).”
Dawson hasn’t had a “welcome to Nebraska” moment yet, he said. But every time he walks through the facilities inside Memorial Stadium, he’s hit with some awe that this is where his career ended up. Thanks to that phone call in January 2013.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh I’m at Nebraska,’ ” Dawson said. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe this is really happening.’ This is going to be great.”