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Matt Rhule Builds a Program, Part 1: Identifying The Players

June 09, 2023

Nebraska is 25 years removed from its last National Championship. The Huskers are 6 seasons removed from their last bowl game. Athletic director Trev Alberts hired rebuild artist Matt Rhule as head coach to return the program to its former glory.

Just before Rhule led the Huskers through their first spring season, he spoke to coaches during a Lauren’s First and Goal clinic. Lauren’s First and Goal is a nonprofit which has already raised over $2.6 million for pediatric brain tumor research and cancer services. Rhule was one of three speakers at that March clinic. For nearly an hour he spoke about evaluating and building a winning team. Hail Varsity is breaking down that presentation into three parts. This is the first of those three.

There are multiple factors to winning. But Matt Rhule believes, on some level, there are three equally important components to a winning program—the roster, the locker room and the program.

Rhule, a known rebuild artist who now comes to do so at Nebraska, laid out how they assemble their roster first. After all, the game is not played without them. His first step is an obvious one—acquiring talent. Professional coaches acquire talent different than high school coaches, which is different than college coaches. And, in the hyper-competitive world of college football, every coach is in a race to acquire the most talent as possible. A key for Rhule is the ability to identify talent where others don’t. Take February’s Super Bowl for example, which included former Temple players Haason Reddick and Shaun Bradley. Neither signed to college scholarships out of high school. Rhule welcomed Reddick back to the team as a walk-on after a brief spell away from the team. Coaches brought Bradley up as a speedy former tailback who no one gave a chance.

“For me, as they came there, we saw a talent, maybe one or two things that people didn’t see,” Rhule recapped. “Maybe more importantly, once they got there, we changed their positions. … I think that is the key to coaching. So many coaches want to put their kids in a box and say ‘he can’t play, he ain’t good enough.’ If there’s one rule in our program it’s never, ever tell me what a kid can’t do.”

Rhule believes in having a vision for each player. That includes identifying their role to play into that person’s strengths. Then comes developing talent. That includes talent further down on the depth chart so they’re ready to step in as needed. The final point there lends itself to a mantra—”we have the players that we have, maximize them.”

Nebraska’s head coach looks for a multitude of intangibles in a prospective Husker football player. He talked in his introduction about creating Nebraska men. They have to show a willingness to be that during the recruitment process. Physically, Rhule looks for big bodies with “elite athleticism.” He wants recruits with speed, explosiveness and athleticism. While he won’t overlook a recruit because of their size, he wants to get them as big and strong as possible to physically impose themselves on the opponent.

“Football is a game of big people beating up little people,” Rhule said. “He might be little in stature but he can still play like a big man. We want to be a physical team, we want to play with dominant contact. We want to own and dominate the weight room.”

Rhule wants to breed competition within his programs. So he looks for winners, the ones who are dying to compete and play in the critical moments. That includes winners in the community, classroom and in practice. A drive there carries over to the rest of the team. He wants good teammates. Rhule said the one word he hears most often among the team is dependability. So he looks for recruits he can depend on to do their jobs and those who hold themselves accountable. He also looks for a few specific attributes in recruits. Rhule looks for players who are smart, tough, competitive and can handle pressure.

Specifically, Rhule wants players who can comprehend the play, defense and circumstance to make the right decision. He’s also looking for those who can embrace the difficulty and struggle even in difficult situations. The kind of player that prefers to be forged by the fire than the path of least resistance. He wants recruits who love football, not just for the highs but for its constant process. He also holds a standard of performance and wants recruits who compete against that standard, not just an opponent.

“I love the guys who take ownership of their performance,” Rhule said. “Because when you believe you own your performance and you control your performance, then you believe you’re the reason why you win.

“You can’t say that you’re the reason why you won when you always blame someone else when you lose.”

Some wisdom Dr. Tom Osborne passed down to Rhule came with how they drilled. Nebraska practiced in four simultaneous drills when Osborne coached in Lincoln. That coincides with Rhule’s intentions to maximize reps among the team. The Huskers did just that in spring ball, moving drills around the Hawks Championship Center to utilize space and maximize reps. It was one of countless points of emphasis Rhule implemented into Nebraska already.

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