Nebraska fans had high hopes for the Scott Frost era after the former championship-winning quarterback came to Lincoln fresh off a perfect season with UCF. But following a horrific 16-31 run in fewer than five seasons -- the program's worst stretch in 60 years -- the Cornhuskers are starting from scratch once again.
Instead of relying on another Tom Osborne devotee, the Cornhuskers went outside the family and identified former Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule as the future. Rhule flamed out of the NFL after barely two seasons, but his college résumé cannot be ignored. He arrives in the Big Ten as one of the biggest turnaround artists in college football.
At Temple, Rhule took the Owls from 2-10 in his first season to 20-7 with an AAC title over his final two years. At Baylor, the program jumped from 1-11 to 11-3 in two seasons, including a No. 7 finish in the final College Football Playoff rankings in 2019. While Rhule left town early, the roster he built was central in the Bears' Big 12 title run in 2021.
Now, for the first time, Rhule comes to an advantaged program. While the past 20 years have been shaky, Nebraska ranks among the most historic programs in the sport. The program earned eight AP Top 10 finishes between 1993 and 2001 and won three national championships. College football has changed a lot since then, but Rhule is the perfect blend of tradition and modern thinking that could get the 'Huskers back in the national conversation if things break right.
Here's what to watch as the Rhule era begins in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Rhule historically leans on coaches he previously worked with to build his staff, and this one is no different. Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield coached under Rhule at both Temple and Baylor, and he comes to Lincoln after helping South Carolina win 15 games over the past two seasons. Secondary coach Evan Cooper and receivers coach Garret McGuire (son of Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire) both played for Rhule before later joining his staff in Carolina. Several other assistants have ties to either Temple or Baylor.
There are a few exceptions. Defensive coordinator Tony White earned the job after transforming Syracuse into a top-25 defense. Offensive line coach and former letter winner Donovan Raiola was retained off Frost's staff; it probably doesn't hurt that he is the uncle of quarterback Dylan Raiola, the No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2024. In a shrewd move, Rhule also hired Texas high school coach Bob Wager from Arlington Martin to coach tight ends. Expect Nebraska to lean on Rhule's relationships and recruit Texas hard.
Schematically, it's difficult to know what direction Rhule's program will go. White ran a 3-3-5 at Syracuse, a similar look to the one that earned Rhule a trip to the Big 12 title game in 2019 with Baylor. Satterfield coached a multiple pro-style offense at South Carolina, but with some wrinkles to make up for talent deficiencies. However, building a staff that institutes a strong culture is far more central to Rhule's philosophy than schematics alone.
Roster-wise, Nebraska will look much different. The Cornhuskers brought in a massive 28-man high school recruiting class. Eleven more reinforcements came through the transfer portal. By Week 1, the depth chart will look much different than the 2022 finale.
Names to know
- Anthony Grant, running back: Grant came to Nebraska as the top JUCO running back in the nation and immediately emerged as a starter. The rising senior led the 'Huskers with 915 yards and six touchdowns, with 556 of his yards coming after contact behind a struggling offensive line. Grant will miss spring practice to work on academics, but should remain a key playmaker in Satterfield's offense.
- Quinton Newsome, cornerback: Newsome was a mainstay at cornerback for a defense that struggled to defend the pass. He played nearly twice as many snaps as any other corner and broke up 10 passes to go along with a pair of sacks. With so much youth on the back end, Newsome allows the new DC White to pencil in one corner of the rotation.
- Arik Gilbert, tight end: At one time, Gilbert was rated the top tight end recruit in college football history and a consensus top-five prospect. His promising freshman season included 35 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns. Gilbert failed to contribute after transferring to Georgia, but he has a fresh start with Rhule. Don't be surprised if Gilbert is the breakout player on this squad.
Rhule's debuts have never been especially exciting. His Temple and Baylor squads both regressed in his first year, falling to a combined 3-21. However, Nebraska is not Temple nor Baylor, and the popularization of the transfer portal should help move the process along.
The most pressing question comes at quarterback. Incumbent Casey Thompson returns for his final year of eligibility, but he was inconsistent in his first year with the Cornhuskers. Nebraska added former Georgia Tech starting quarterback Jeff Sims to compete for the job. Additionally, there are four underclassmen hoping to break into the rotation: Chubba Purdy, Heinrich Haarberg, Richard Torres and Logan Smothers. The end of spring practice could prove to be a mass exodus at the position.
The pass-catching unit also needs retooling after losing top receiver Trey Palmer to the NFL Draft. Marcus Washington is set to take on a bigger role, while Gilbert and transfers Josh Fleeks and Billy Kemp will compete for touches.
Nebraska played with two true defensive tackles during the 2022 season, so shifting to a base odd look will provide some competition. The Blackshirts' top two edge players are gone, which makes the development of JUCO transfer Kai Wallin and Georgia edge transfer MJ Sherman even more important. Luckily for Nebraska, the secondary is completely back.
Culture development sits at the top of the list of priorities, however. Rhule often uses the phrase "One Of Us" to describe the kind of people he wants in his program, which he describes as being the "toughest, hardest working, most competitive" group in the country. During his first year at Baylor, Rhule had no issues benching or cutting players he didn't feel lived up to expectations, including 1,000-yard running back Terence Williams. Ultimately, 19 of Baylor's starters from their 2019 11-win campaign earned snaps as underclassmen on the 1-11 squad.
Most likely, Year 1 of the Rule era won't be as good as Years 3 or 4, but the work to get the payoff starts now.