LINCOLN — Nebraska football fans caught a glimpse of the direction head coach Matt Rhule wants to take the program at least in the immediate future, when NU announced on Wednesday a recruiting class of at least 28 new players that includes a group of more in-state players than Nebraska has signed in any one cycle.
Rhule also talked about some of his initial assistant coaching hires and where he believes the current roster of players stands in terms of talent and positions of need, during a press conference on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska entered the off season with a number of concerns and maybe none more urgent than the play of the offensive line. Last season NU struggled to protect quarterback Casey Thompson, who was sacked 24 times in 10 games, and to establish much of a consistent run game, which averaged 3.4 yards per carry.
“I’m kind of not bought into the narrative that I hear,” Rhule said about the offensive line play.
“I hear from everywhere that the offensive line is the problem. We’re gonna have a good offensive line next year and I like the guys that are in that room already.”
In watching game film, Rhule said he believes line play will improve if players have a well-defined identity on offense.
“We have to have identity on offense about what we’re going to do,” Rhule said.
“When you kind of try to figure out, ‘Hey, are we a throwing team, a run team,’ We put those guys in hard positions. We’re gonna put those guys in a good position. I’m going to fight for those guys. I like those guys. We tried to bring in some depth and I wanted to bring in a great, young group that we can develop and watch them grow.”
Though Nebraska coaches invited to campus a handful of potential offensive line transfers, NU closed the early signing period with a number of high school linemen signing on the dotted line.
This class includes eight Nebraska high school players, including four offensive linemen in Mason Goldman of Gretna, Sam Sledge from Creighton Prep, Brock Knutson of Scottsbluff and Gunnar Gottula from Lincoln. In addition, NU signed Pierre, South Dakota, offensive lineman Jason Maciejczak.
Many Nebraska fans were surprised to see Rhule retain offensive line coach Donovan Raiola on his staff in light of the group’s struggles.
Rhule was asked about his decision to keep Raiola. In particular, Rhule said they share the same coaching philosophy at the position.
“We interviewed several candidates and we talked to several guys and to Donovan’s credit I said, ‘Hey, I’ll let you know,’” Ruhle said.
“He showed up every day to work. He worked. He just kept being there. Half of life is just showing up and I kind of liked his vibe. I liked his energy, but most importantly to me he had been trained in the same system that I’m trained in, and I want us to play that way.”
Thompson had shoulder surgery at the end of the season and is not expected to return to full speed at QB until next fall.
Rhule said it wasn’t necessarily his intention to bring in another quarterback, until former Georgia Tech signal caller Jeff Sims became available in the transfer portal and signed with Nebraska on Wednesday.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Sims was among a group of six transfer players to become Huskers.
”Jeff Collins was the head coach at Georgia Tech,” Rhule said in explaining the connection with Sims. “Jeff and I worked together at Albright College, then at Western Carolina years ago. Jeff replaced me as the head coach at Temple so when I first went to Baylor I went and visited them, watch them practice. I go to the NFL. I have every Saturday off to watch games.
”I’ve watched a ton of Georgia Tech games and I fell in love with Jeff just as a player early on. He’s dynamic. He’s athletic. He’s smart. He’s big. He’s got accuracy. He can throw from the pocket. So, when he became available, or when he went into the transfer portal, you know, I was already sold on him. I even had people in the NFL say, hey, you need to go get this guy. I mean, I think that everyone recognizes he’s an NFL talent.”
Rhule said bringing Sims to Nebraska doesn’t mean the quarterback talent in Lincoln needs an upgrade.
“There’s a lot of good quarterbacks in that room,” Rhule said. “There’s a lot of good players and the best player will play with me. On scholarship, walk-on, freshman, senior, none of that matters to me.”
Sims was joined at Nebraska by a trio of Florida transfers including safety Corey Collier, edge player Chief Borders and long snapper Marco Ortiz. Also transferring to Nebraska were former Texas A&M defensive lineman Elijah Jeudy and former Baylor running back Josh Fleeks.
Nebraska signed nine defensive players on Wednesday, including six from the high school ranks. All of the signees have three things in common: athleticism, speed and size.
The new class of players was bolstered on Wednesday by the commitment and signing of Lincoln East wide receiver Malachi Coleman. Coleman had committed to Nebraska previously but reopened his recruitment after Rhule was hired.
Rhule said his recruiting philosophy is to find the best players and mold schemes to fit that talent.
“I’m not sitting here saying we’re gonna run the 3-3-5 defense,” he said. “So, we’re not going to bring in guys and say ‘Hey, this is our defense and you guys have to fit it.’ We’re gonna get the best players possible. We felt like we needed speed on defense and that’s what we tried to recruit.”
Rhule was hired to help Nebraska return to its roots of being a developmental program.
One of the challenges Rhule faces in that regard is being able to keep players in Lincoln for two, three years in the age of the transfer portal.
“I think it’s just about picking the right guys from the transfer portal,” he said. “We’ve taken some kids who have three, four years left. You can still work with them for a long amount of time.
“What I don’t want to do is moving forward have a bunch of kids that fight in my program for four years now and just bring a one-year guy in every year on top of them. If we need to it’s competition, but we want to get guys here for at least two years, three years.”
Rhule said many schools aren’t doing things the right way in the transfer portal era.
“I’m only coaching college football because I love this age group and I want to feel like I’m doing something in their lives and our staff is doing something in their lives,” he said.
“So, I can’t start that relationship off with lies. I can’t start that relationship with ‘Hey, I want to help you be the best man you can be,’ but let me go tamper with someone on someone else’s roster and start it off by cheating, which is happening everywhere right now.
“It’s saddening to me as the guy who was in college football to see what’s happened to college football. That being said, I want to you know I want it done the right way for our guys.”