LINCOLN — Fresh off an 11-win season at a different school, Nebraska’s new football coach said the following to a room full of his peers at the American Football Coaches Association convention:
“Run the ball!” he said. “It’s a not a run — guys, it’s not a run if you throw a bubble. It’s not a run. ‘Coach, well it’s a run alert — ’ no! Run the football! Hand it off…run the ball between the tackles! Make them tackle you! Make plays a body blow! Run the football, stop the run. Protect the quarterback, hit the quarterback.”
Sound good? Sound like a guy who might understand Nebraska football before he arrives for Monday afternoon’s press conference? Sound like a guy who, if NU had an open job in early 2020, would have been an immediate trade-in for then-Husker coach Scott Frost?
Then Matt Rhule’s for you — so long as it’s that Matt Rhule taking over the Huskers. Whether he’s still the coach-on-a-rocket-ship from 2½ years ago depends on how you see his time with the Carolina Panthers, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
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What’s most pertinent in this moment: Rhule turned around Temple and Baylor. He played in the Big Ten at Penn State. His Temple squads played Big Ten-style football — defense, run game, special teams. He has a sense of humor, and he had the good sense, Saturday morning, to talk to legend Tom Osborne by phone as he was hired. The good sense, too, to go on ESPN’s Gameday program and say “NFL” about 1,900 times as a 20-second recruiting pitch.
Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts may have warned in September against a new coach winning the press conference, but Alberts, himself a smooth talker, hired a coach with the gift of gab. He has the slogans of a P.J. Fleck — who, last I checked, has beaten Nebraska four in a row — with a “ball coach” vibe Fleck lacks. Matt Rhule could sell meat pizza to a vegan, cement shoes to a marathon runner.
Can he convince former Huskers he’s the guy? Can he coax Mickey Joseph to stick around? In Osborne’s short conversation with Rhule Saturday, Joseph came up in the conversation. People like Mickey. Players, coaches, boosters — especially a lot of the ex-Huskers. Especially Osborne.
“He’s a good recruiter, he relates well to people and he’s a straight shooter,” Osborne said of Joseph. “He doesn’t give you any baloney.”
What’s true of Joseph appears true of Rhule. His honesty — and tenacity for a certain standard — likely fed into the troubles in Carolina. Rhule admitted, in conversations this week, that COVID put a damper on his ability to build relationships with players.
“Even this year, every Tuesday, I’d sit in my office downstairs — not in my normal office, a different office downstairs — and just visit with guys, and talk about the previous game,” Rhule said on The 33rd Podcast. “To me that’s the only way you can get young players to grow. Not in a huge setting where everyone’s watching them, but one-on-one ... so often players have so much going on inside that you have to just shut up and listen to them. And I wasn’t able to do that that first year.”
He’ll have no such hurdles at Nebraska. Good thing, too — he has little time to waste.
Here’s five things to watch:
Rhule and Joseph
Expect that to near the top of urgent items.
Joseph’s good friend from LSU, Joe Brady, was unceremoniously fired by Rhule last December 12 games into Rhule’s second season.
It’s a factor — Joseph is a loyal guy.
But Joseph’s local knowledge of Nebraska trumps any Xs and Os expertise Brady brought to Carolina.
Splashing the pot on staff hires
The Big Ten is a coaches’ league.
NU has to hire minds who match up favorably with the coordinators at Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, and the best defensive minds in the league, too.
Rhule may have “his guys,” at certain spots, but the best coaches need to be on the table, too. And if that means poaching a Big Ten coordinator — do it.
The quarterback conversation
Rhule is a defensive-minded coach who needs to pay close attention to the signal caller spot at NU.
Casey Thompson, from our vantage point, is the only Power Five conference starter on the roster right now.
Either Richard Torres takes a big jump, Thompson stays or Rhule has a strong beeline on different options in the transfer portal.
Immediate assessment of the offensive and defensive lines
Nebraska is deficient in the trenches. That was evident even on Black Friday against Iowa.
Poor lines are tough to fix immediately, but Rhule will have to try, quickly, to figure out who’s N and who’s bound for the transfer portal.
Gotta keep guys: Turner Corcoran, Bryce Benhart, Henry Lutovsky, Ethan Piper, Colton Feist, Garrett Nelson and Ty Robinson.
Go 7-for-7 there, retain some of the young depth, and go looking for juco and portal guys.
Sweating the small recruiting class just enough — but not too much
Rhule would be wise to keep all of the in-state commits, both commits from Texas — Riley Van Poppel and Dylan Rogers — and linebacker Hayden Moore from Colorado.
If a receiver or running back bails, Nebraska will live.
The Huskers should not over-sign this class. Rhule doesn’t know this place yet. Be patient and build it out in 2024.
Those things play out over the next month. But the larger story, over several years, boils down to this: Can Rhule build trust with all the various factions of this program and get everyone to see his vision for a fast, physical team that hits and hurts and wins?
He’ll sing a slightly different tune than Scott Frost — who tried to merge old-school Nebraska with new-school Oregon. Rhule’s approach will be more primordial. Husker Nation should like it. But, after so many years of in-fighting and politics, it’s hard for all of the stakeholders to line up behind one guy.
Rhule graduated with a political science degree from Penn State. He’ll need it.
“When the head football coach and the athletic director and the president and the chancellor, when everybody wakes up everyday with the same mission, then you have a chance to do great things,” Rhule said on ESPN. “And I think we want to go there, we want to rally the entire state behind Nebraska football. We know they love the team.
“But to me it’s about everybody moving in the same direction. We can’t look backwards, we can’t look to the side, we’ve got to put our head down and look straight ahead.”
New Rhule: Tunnel vision.