Nebraska spring football storylines: Matt Rhule remaking Huskers’ roster

Late last year, during his first few weeks on the job, new Nebraska football coach Matt Rhule had a simple request for the players he saw on campus and around the team facilities. Rhule, who was the architect of program rebuilds at Temple and Baylor but came to the Cornhuskers after a failed stint as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, asked his new pupils to cut him some slack while he familiarized himself with the roster.

“I literally had to say to the guys, ‘Hey guys, do me a favor,’” Rhule recalled during a news conference on National Signing Day, “‘When you guys walk up and say hello, for like the first couple weeks, just introduce yourself again. I’m meeting 120 new players. There’s one of me, there’s 120 of you.’”

Rhule might have reinstated that grace period over the last few weeks as seven early enrollees from high school and 11 transfers arrived in Lincoln for the spring semester. That’s the kind of churn expected during a hard restart of a program that won 23 games in the last six seasons combined. It’s going to take patience, and it’s going to take a while.

With that in mind, here are the storylines to watch as Rhule leads Nebraska into spring practice for the first time: 


Overhauling the program

A good way to contextualize the breadth of Nebraska’s roster turnover is to examine Rhule’s first recruiting class, a group that ranked 30th in the country and fifth in the Big Ten behind Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State, according to 247Sports.

Rhule brought in a staggering 39 players in the 2023 cycle, with another wave of transfer portal activity still to come later this spring. The Cornhuskers signed 28 high school prospects, which was their largest group since 2010, and added 11 more players through the transfer portal, all of whom came from high-major programs. It’s worth noting that Nebraska’s reliance on the transfer portal reflects Rhule’s desire to flip the roster as quickly as possible rather than a long-term recruiting strategy.  

The highest-rated transfers include:

— Former Georgia tight end Arik Gilbert, who is No. 73 in the current transfer portal rankings and was a five-star prospect in 2020. Gilbert was rated the No. 1 tight end in the country for his recruiting class.

— Former Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims, who is No. 117 in the transfer portal rankings and was a four-star prospect in 2020. Sims was rated the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback in the country for his recruiting class.

— Former Florida defensive back Corey Collier, who is No. 184 in the transfer portal rankings and was a four-star prospect in 2021. Collier was the No. 6 safety in the country and the No. 17 prospect in the talent-rich state of Florida for his recruiting class.

— Former Virginia wide receiver Billy Kemp IV, who is No. 228 in the transfer portal rankings and was a three-star prospect in 2018. Kemp ranks fourth in school history at Virginia with 192 receptions and ranks 10th in career receiving yards with 1,774 across five seasons.

But the portal both giveth and taketh away, and the Cornhuskers lost several high-profile players to other programs. At the top of the list is rising sophomore linebacker Ernest Hausmann, one of the lone bright spots in a dreary 2022 campaign for Nebraska. Hausmann recorded 54 tackles last season, including two tackles for loss and one sack, while becoming just the fifth true freshman to start at linebacker for the Cornhuskers in the last 30 seasons. Hausmann was the No. 2 prospect in the transfer portal rankings and signed with Michigan, where he is expected to compete for a starting spot.

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Nebraska also lost freshman wideout Decoldest Crawford (No. 69 WR in the 2022 recruiting cycle) to Louisiana Tech and freshman defensive back Jaeden Gould (No. 31 CB in the 2022 recruiting cycle) to Syracuse.

“I think the transfer portal is a great thing for young people to control their destiny,” Rhule said. “Like many other modalities, it gets ruined sometimes by adults. I think more players are told to transfer than actually decide they want to transfer. But if a kid is not in the right spot, he should have a chance to leave and have a chance to play right away.

“We don’t want to be the hugest transfer team. We want to recruit high school student-athletes. We want to watch them develop over four or five years. But if someone is somewhere else and they really love Nebraska and think this is the right place for them, then I want them to be here. And if a young person really wants to get on the field and they don’t think they can get on the field for us, and they have a chance to go somewhere else, I want to support them in that.”

Evaluating the QBs

On Feb. 20, quarterback Casey Thompson posted a wordless tweet on his social media account to confirm what most people had assumed for months: that he is remaining at Nebraska for another season after transferring from Texas last winter. His message consisted only of a graphic featuring five photographs of Thompson in Cornhusker apparel with the words “RUN IT BACK” splashed across the background like a watermark.

Thompson endured an up-and-down year in Lincoln while fighting through an elbow injury that caused numbness in his fingers during the loss to Illinois on Oct. 29. He started 10 of 12 games as Nebraska transitioned from former head coach Scott Frost to interim head coach Mickey Joseph, and finished with 2,407 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But it was the way Thompson bookended the season that should have Cornhuskers fans excited about his potential in 2023: He threw for 355 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the opener against Northwestern and finished with 278 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the finale against Iowa. Thompson’s ability — and willingness — to sling the ball downfield were clear.

But the starting job won’t be his by default. Thompson is expected to miss spring practice while rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, and the Cornhuskers added another high-major quarterback through the transfer portal in Sims, a dual-threat player from Georgia Tech who is listed as a junior. Sims threw for 4,464 yards, ran for 1,152 yards and scored 41 total touchdowns in 25 appearances scattered across three seasons, though he only played seven games last year. The former four-star prospect held scholarship offers from Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Penn State and Tennessee, among others, when he was the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback for the 2020 recruiting cycle.

The timeline attached to Thompson’s recovery means the competition with Sims is expected to spill into fall camp.

“They can just be serious about themselves academically, athletically and in the community,” Rhule said on National Signing Day when asked what he expects from the quarterbacks this spring. “They can be the same guy when the coaches aren’t around as when the coaches are around, and that sends a real message to the team. And when they know everybody’s name on the team and they know the people that work in the cafeteria (by name), then they become someone people want to follow. I like the group.”

Finding speed

If protecting in-state prospects was Rhule’s primary goal during his first recruiting cycle at Nebraska, then identifying players who possess elite speed might have been second on the list. Rhule said he and his assistants were less concerned with filling certain positions than they were signing quality football players who matched the physical profiles they prefer. The new coaching staff placed an emphasis on athletes who sprinted or jumped for their high school track and field teams because things like times and marks offer quantifiable proof of a prospect’s athletic ability.

“I’m gonna kind of be numbers-based,” Rhule said. “When I don’t know (about the football caliber of a certain player), I do know that track times and triple jumps and 40-yard dashes — that doesn’t mean you’re a great football player — but when I’m not sure, those things guide you, right? They’re just a rock that you can kind of lean on. When I see a kid who’s a 47-foot triple jumper and likes football, I’m gonna take a chance on him if they have the right mental (makeup). So I like some of those things that we were able to bring in.”

Early enrollee Malachi Coleman from Lincoln East High School in Nebraska lands at the center of that Venn diagram. Coleman is the highest-rated player in the state and the No. 66 overall prospect in the country for the 2023 recruiting cycle. He stands 6-foot-4, weighs 185 pounds and played both sides of the ball his junior year before injuries derailed his senior season.

Some coaches — including the ones at Nebraska — project him as an elite deep-ball threat because he caught 17 passes for 561 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2021. Other coaches saw his long-levered frame and envision an elite pass rusher because he recorded 57 tackles, 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles that same year.

On the track, Coleman finished second in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the 2022 Class A Nebraska Track and Field Championships with times of 10.58 seconds and 21.34 seconds, respectively. He finished third at the state meet in the triple jump as a junior and fourth as a sophomore.   

“The speed is there,” Rhule said.

And Coleman wasn’t alone. Consider some of the other prospects Rhule signed in the last few months:

— ATH Brice Turner from Bay City, Texas: 665 total yards and eight TDs in 2022; won both the 100-meter title (10.25 seconds) and the 200-meter title (21.04 seconds) at the Texas UIL 4A State Championships

— WR Jalen Lloyd from Omaha, Nebraska: 44 catches for 784 yards and five TDs in 2022; Class A state champion in the 100-meter dash (10.54 seconds), long jump and triple jump last spring

— DB D’Andre Barnes from Aurora, Colorado: 37 catches for 785 yards and nine TDs in 2022; 5A state champion in the 200-meter dash (21.69 seconds) as a sophomore and finished third in the 100-meter dash (10.91 seconds)

— WR Jaidyn Doss from Peculiar, Missouri: 47 catches for 794 yards and nine TDs in 2022; ran 11.36 seconds in the 100-meter dash as a junior and long jumped more than 21 feet

“I had a lot of success over the years bringing in guys who were fast and (then) finding the right position,” Rhule said. “For us to increase our team speed — and I’m not saying the previous team was slow — but just to bring in that level of speed to me is really important.”

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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