Michigan wide receivers coach Tony Dews not only believes in the concept of the complete player, he has lived it. Dews' foundation was built as a standout tight end in a pass happy offense under legendary coach Sam Rutigliano at Liberty University in Virginia. From there he coached everything from defensive linemen, offensive linemen, linebackers, tight ends and special teams players before returning to his bread and butter, wide receivers. These experiences have helped Dews become what he aspires his charges to be: complete players with the tools to succeed in any situation. Dews is Michigan's Swiss Army knife.
Dews was an All-Virginia tight end and four-year letterwinner at Liberty from 1992 to 1995 and led the team in receiving as a junior and senior. He played under legendary coach Sam Rutigliano, who had risen through the high school and college ranks to win NFL Coach of the Year honors with the Cleveland Browns in 1980.
"I was fortunate to play for Sam Rutigliano because he had a lot of coaching experience," said Dews. "It was also great to play in his offensive system which had a lot of the same principles of the spread. We always knew that he cared about us as people and he was always available to talk about anything, not just football."
Dews chose to pursue a career in coaching and, after one year as a high school assistant and one year at Division II Millersville, he began his Division I collegiate coaching career as a graduate assistant at West Virginia in 1999 under then-head coach Don Nehlen. When Nehlen retired in 2000, the program hired as their new coach, a promising assistant from Clemson, Rich Rodriguez.
"Coach Rodriguez came in and interviewed all the assistant coaches and graduate assistants," said Dews. "I wanted to stay because Coach Rod was an up-and-coming coach at the time and I was looking to get back into the offensive world after working with the defense for a few years. He hired me to stay on."
Dews remained a graduate assistant until 2002 when he began his methodical climb up the coaching ladder. Dews coached the offensive line, defensive line, special teams, tight ends and linebackers at four programs over the next five years, moving to ever more prestigious programs and getting a wider view of football until he returned to Rodriguez and the Mountaineers in 2007 as the wide receivers coach.
"Coaching different positions has allowed me to see football from all angles," said Dews. "Coaching defense has helped me better understand what defenses are trying to accomplish when they scheme against an offense. I can apply these lessons to my own coaching and better prepare our receivers for what they may face on the field. Playing on offense has also helped me be a better coach because I can relate to them and the position."
Like his own journey as a coach, Dews' goal is to produce a complete player.
"As a receiver, you are going to be asked to block at times, asked to be a primary receiver at times, you may be a secondary receiver," said Dews. "But you need to be the ultimate and complete team player.
"We identify what a player's weakness is and then work on those weaknesses to make him a better player. They've gotten this far in their football careers, so obviously they have physical skills, but we need to work on the mental part of the game to help them become savvy football players. The mental side can enhance the physical. You may be a step quicker because you diagnosed the coverage faster or maybe you get to a block quicker and in a better position because you've studied film and understand conceptually what the defense is doing."
Dews points to receivers like Jerry Rice and Tim Brown as examples of the power of the mental side of the game.
"Guys like Rice and Brown can play at that position for 20 years even though they aren't running 4.4. Their mental abilities and their mastery of the fundamentals allowed them to continue to play at a high level. Certainly there were faster, stronger receivers who came into the league, but they were able to beat those guys out because they had mastered so many aspects of the game."
Mastering the fundamentals and techniques of the position compliments all the reps players do in the weight room and the hours spent in film study.
"A good stance gets you off the ball quicker, which leads to the defender breaking down quicker and now he has to react," said Dews. "You gain control of the situation. Now, how do you separate from him How do you catch the ball. How do you secure the ball"
The complete player is a goal that is difficult to attain, but thanks to Dews, his experience as a player and coach and his dedication to the program, their efforts should not take long to bear fruit.
"We're going to play fast and we're going to play smart," said Dews. "We're not going to cut corners."