Nebraska fans got their first en masse look at the Matt Rhule era Saturday. Just over 66,000, officially, were on hand at Memorial Stadium for the spring game as the White team, essentially the first-team offense, topped the Red, 21-7.
Let’s insert the mandatory but variable spring game disclaimer here: When Nebraska plays Northwestern or any other team in the fall, it all counts. Whatever happens is what happened, and that’s that. A spring game, obviously, isn’t the same, and everyone probably has their own rate of return. If you approach any spring game thinking, “I discount anything I see by X%,” whatever X may be, keep doing that for everything below.
That said, we’re now going to talk about the game like a game. Here are some thoughts and observations from the on-field debut of the Rhule era.
- Running back Anthony Grant led Nebraska in rushing last year, nearly becoming the first Husker since 2018 to eclipse 1,000 yards with 915, but the chatter all spring was that Gabe Ervin Jr. was impressing and Saturday didn’t diminish that talk any. First, Ervin was with the first team (along with Grant) on the White squad. Midway through the first quarter, he had a nice jump cut paired with a stiff arm to score the first touchdown of the game. Grant and Rahmir Johnson had their moments for the White team, too, but if Ervin entered the offseason as a promising player who had yet to find the shortest path towards that promise, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on it now in 2023.
- Johnson led all rushers with 35 yards on six carries.
- With Casey Thompson held out of the game, Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims got the start as first-team quarterback. He didn’t do anything to prompt questions about why he’s here. Sims started the game with calm first half, completing 6-of-8 passes for 115 yards. He added a 7-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, breaking a tackle inside the five to find the end zone. Nebraska’s quarterback situation will be interesting through the offseason.
- Sims finished the game 9-of-13 passing for 139 yards with a 159 passer rating. The rest of the quarterbacks combined to go 17-for-41 through the air for 84 yards with an interception. Heinrich Haarberg showed flashes of his rushing ability but was 2-of-9 for -1 yard through the air for the White team. Chubba Purdy played most of the game on Red but made a late appearance for White and was 6-of-13 with an interception on the game’s final play. Redshirt freshman Richard Torres had the most throws on the day, completing nine on 18 attempts for 66 yards on the Red team. Mississippi transfer Jack Woche, a walk-on, was 0-for-1. Maybe let’s revise the above and say what happens between Sims and Thompson will be interesting, noting that Logan Smothers was also held out of contact this spring.
- Virgina transfer wide receiver Bill Kemp Jr. showed some of his value on Saturday. He had back-to-back catches on White’s second drive and pulled in a two-point conversion pass from Haarberg to give his team a 14-0 lead. In the third quarter, Kemp took a fly-sweep handoff for a couple of yards, showing another potential tool in his toolbox.
- The Red team defense gave up 21 first-half points, but the big defensive takeaway may have involved a handful of newcomers. True freshman defensive lineman Princewill Umanmielen was impossible to miss out of the gates, tallying three tackles for loss in the first half. Cameron Lenhardt, another true freshman who enrolled in January, was a consistent presence in the backfield, too. Right now, they seem like safe bets to play this fall.
- Transfer time: Defensive lineman Elijah Jeudy (Texas A&M) finished second on the Red team with five tackles. Linebacker MJ Sherman (Georgia) had four tackles for the Red, including 1.5 for loss. Defensive lineman Stephon Wynn Jr., who transferred from Alabama last season, had some good moments, finishing second on the White team with five tackles.
- Also of note: While the Red struggled to get off the field and prevent scoring opportunities, it was credited with eight tackles for loss in the first 30 minutes. White, ostensibly the second-team defense, was credited with three during that stretch. If you went into Saturday looking for evidence of defensive coordinator Tony White’s versatile, aggressive approach, those negative plays were at least a hint.
- The Red and White teams combined to fumble eight times with six of those lost to the opposing defense.
- Frank Solich was honored at halftime of the game, which felt as good as I think everyone assumed it would. Solich expressed his appreciation for fans on Friday, but there was another big reveal in store Saturday. Athletic Director Trev Alberts, with an assist from The Touchdown Club, announced that the Huskers’ locker room in the new football facility set to open this year will be named in honor of Solich.
- Saturday was spring game day in the Big Ten’s West Division . . . sort of. Iowa and Wisconsin held what were labeled as open practices, which isn’t out of the ordinary for either program (though the Badgers’ was branded “The Launch” for new head coach Luke Fickell’s official Madison unveiling). Minnesota held its spring game, televised by the Big Ten Network, in its indoor practice facility with whatever spectators allowed in ringing the playing field. Purdue couldn’t host a traditional spring game due to renovations to Ross-Ade Stadium and Illinois, which planned to hold its spring game Thursday night, had to change it to an open scrimmage on Friday due to weather. Northwestern typically doesn’t host a traditional spring game. The point here is not “look at those lame spring games.” Rather, it serves as a reinforcement of what makes Nebraska football stand out among its most immediate contemporaries. Not holding a spring game in Lincoln isn’t a thought. Saturday didn’t feature chamber-of-commerce weather, but it still drew 66,045. The Huskers have a lot of ground to cover to get back to the football power of yore, but some things––the public support––haven’t faded. You can look towards the attendance figure to support such an argument, or you can just look around the league.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.