Matt Rhule comes from the trenches. He’s a converted backup quarterback-to-center who became a walk-on linebacker at Penn State. He knows work and he knows it sometimes comes outside the limelight. In a full suit centerstage during his introductory press conference on Monday, he pledged to do the dirty work.
He promised administrators, boosters, former lettermen, media, others gathered inside the Hawks Championship Center and those huddled inside Memorial Stadium that he’d rip his suit off Monday night and get to work. At 5:06 a.m. Tuesday morning he tweeted a picture of glowing red Nebraska National Championship years inside the stadium on a dark Lincoln morning.
Rhule aspires to national championships. That’s the end goal. But the self-proclaimed “process guy” knows it doesn’t come overnight.
“I want to build a team that’s tough, I want to build a team that’s hard working,” Rhule said. “I told the team that today. The price of glory is paid in here at 6 a.m. The price of glory is paid on the recruiting trail.
“We are going to work harder than we’ve ever asked ourselves to work because this is going to be hard. … We’re going to compete at everything we do. There’s not a game that I expect to ever walk into where we don’t expect to win.”
Rhule’s key components of speed at the skill positions and strength in the middle tweaked between Temple and Baylor. At Temple, a small school in Philadelphia, the Owls included a fullback in a battering attack. When he went to Waco they ran through Big 12 defenses as well as around them. Rhule’s NFL experience brings new ideas back to the college game but it all starts at the same common denominator.
“I don’t think you can win games without winning the line of scrimmage,” Rhule told the crowd on Monday.
Running back Jahad Thomas could attest to that. Thomas went to Temple throughout Rhule’s head coaching tenure there and finished fourth on the school’s all-time rushing list. The Owls averaged 107.8 rushing yards per game in 2014, Thomas’s sophomore year, and improved to 176.4 per game his senior year. During that timeframe, they averaged 10 more rushing attempts per game, up to 30. For context, Nebraska’s Anthony Grant ran for over 100 yards in the Huskers’ first three games but only twice in the last nine games. In those nine, eight of which were Big Ten games, no Husker ran for more than 61 yards.
Baylor averaged 117.3 rushing yards on 34.5 carries in Rhule’s first season. That increased to 169.1 yards and 38.6 carries the next year. It plateaued there with 166.4 yards per game on 36 carries in his final season when Baylor went 11-3. Rhule arrived in Waco just after all-time school rushing leader Shock Linwood graduated. Then came JaMycal Hasty, is No. 12 on Baylor’s all-time list with 1,998 yards.
Rhule, a former defensive line coach at UCLA and offensive line coach for the New York Giants, hasn’t been a head coach in the Big Ten yet. But he is familiar with Big Ten country. Run the ball, stop the run and protect the football.
“You have to be able to win in the elements,” Rhule said. “You have to be able to win when it’s hot early in the year, cold late in the year, you have to be able to win on the East Coast, pretty soon you’ll have to be able to win on the West Coast.”
Nebraska’s new head coach said his vision is built up front. That’s not limited to recruiting, it includes the weight room and training. He’s confident it can be done at Nebraska because they did it at Temple and Baylor. Athletic director Trev Alberts described Nebraska as the premiere development program in the country. Rhule’s aligned with that vision. Out of two dozen combined NFL Draft picks from his time at Temple and Baylor, none were top-class recruits when they arrived on campus.
“We can absolutely do it,” Rhule said. “We can absolutely get the University of Nebraska, the University of Nebraska football back to where it’s supposed to be. It will be hard, it may take time, but it will be done.”
He said it’ll be tough. It always is in the trenches.