Hundreds of thousands of eyes turned their focus towards Lincoln and the Huskers’ first spring practice on Monday. It’s the dawn of a new era in Husker football and that’s inherently exciting among the fan base. All those eyes also brings pressure. So head coach Matt Rhule is trying “reduce the idea of good and bad.”
Monday morning brought the first football practice together with a new coaching staff. That involves learning new offensive and defensive systems, new teammates and new coaches. They hold open lines of communication because of the pressure. Some Huskers have already left the program and the roster has to dwindle in order to meet the 85-scholarship limit. Even if they find the field in the fall, the pressure doesn’t subside.
“If you drop one pass you can become a meme pretty quickly,” Rhule said. “We’re just being very deliberate with our practices. Building off the things we did well, working on things we’re not doing well.”
Rhule also complimented how coachable the team is. Their willingness to learn beyond those pressures has been an encouragement. The head coach explained that veteran players can be defensive. He pointed to linebacker Luke Reimer. He’s a returning all-conference selection who’s proven his value on the field. Yet, he’s willing to learn a new defensive system and all the intricacies that come with it. Add in transfers from Florida and Georgia, some just earned another National Championship. They’re lined up besides returning Huskers with the same willingness to learn.
“I would just say there’s a really good core of men on this team who do things right,” Rhule said. “Go back and look at last year’s team. They could have thrown in the towel, they battled all the way to the end, they beat Iowa. They had a 3.1 GPA. When you have a staff change and a 3.1 GPA, that’s outrageous. There’s so many good people within the program.”
Part of that buy-in comes from guys like Ethan Piper. He’s a returning starter on an offensive line unit that garnered massive scrutiny last season. Piper loved getting back on the field Monday and embraced the “What’s next” and “1% better” mentality that followed Rhule and his staff. Piper said the line writes down points of improvement. Collectively, they want to improve on pass and run blocking. Personally, Piper wrote down “pad leverage” and “violent hands.” That’s what he’ll keep his eye on when watching film. Piper worked out at both guard spots and center, and likely will continue in order to build depth. The addition of transfer Ben Scott and return of Nouredin Nouili help build depth as well.
“We’re kind of shallow on the offensive line,” Piper said before welcoming back Nouili. “For him to be back and get some depth, get some continuity rolling again, helps gel together as a unit.”
The buy-in to the new coaching staff came easy for some. Gabe Ervin Jr., for example, said he’s felt the best he’s ever been. And the coaching staff agreed, with Rhule hoping for a “sensational camp” out of the returner. Ervin currently weighs around 222 pounds and is one of the fastest on the team. In a crowded unit even with Anthony Grant currently suspended from practice, Ervin’s fighting for real estate.
“This is probably the best I’ve felt,” he said. “I just feel bigger, more explosive, that big back that’s going to do some damage this year.”
Buy-in also came for those who weren’t as committed during the coaching change. Heinrich Haarberg was benched in favor of a walk-on for the Michigan trip last season. The Kearney Catholic graduate could have transferred when it became clear the interim coaching staff didn’t include him in their plans. He elected to return after meeting with Rhule and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield.
“I got a sense this a place with this staff that I could thrive,” Haarberg said. “I really have a renewed sense of energy, I guess. Last year was hard for a lot of us. But this staff gave me more confidence to come back and keep developing in Lincoln.”
They saw an athlete that could be utilized in a lot of different ways, he said. Haarberg is still working at quarterback but could find an easier path to the field at a different position. He said he’s open to that change. For now, he’s focused on being a better quarterback. He’s getting tips from the other quarterbacks in the room, which recently added a new member. Former Ole Miss walk-on quarterback Jack Roche, who played high school ball at IMG Academy, is now a Husker. He redshirted last season and has four years of eligibility remaining.