It’s finally time for the Huskers to find the field. Without the weight of a coaching search and flanked by the hope that accompanies change, a unique class of Nebraska football starts the 2023 spring season on Monday.
Matt Rhule returns to college football this week. Nebraska made waves by announcing his hire the day after ending the 2022 season at Iowa. He spent the following weeks building his coaching staff and assuring recruiting classes. He oversaw winter workouts with his signature structure. Voluntary team activities, various team competitions, film screenings and game nights brought the Huskers together. Now, they lace their cleats up to play ball.
“Practice is the most important thing in our program,” Rhule said earlier this month. “I take that very seriously, and I defend practice at a high level. I don’t even know what I’m saying at this point, other than I can’t wait for spring ball, I can’t wait for spring practice. This is my favorite time of the year.”
Rhule underlined that belief by sharing interactions while out in the community. Some involved people asking Rhule’s opinion on the team’s 2023 successes. Rhule believes they can’t talk about the fall right now. They haven’t “earned the right,” as he put it. Not until they pay enough dues at 6 a.m. are they able to think about it.
This coaching staff is plainly focused on the tasks ahead of the fall. Not only do the Huskers have to install new offensive and defensive systems, they have to get familiar with almost an entirely new coaching staff. On top of all that, roster spots are likely on the line. Nebraska needs to trim its roster by over a dozen to reach the 85-scholarship cap by this fall. That means returning Huskers and the 41 new faces brought in (including Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda and Zavier Betts who weren’t with the team at the end of last season) are fighting for a home.
The majority of the team has risen to the occasion through winter workouts and team activities so far. That give the coaching staff optimism moving forward.
“I think you see guys who attack it,” Rhule told Greg Sharpe earlier this month. “And I just think it’s kind of a continuum of who can continue it during spring ball, who can continue it during camp.”
Instead of stirring the pot with roster spot anxiety, Rhule and his coaching staff brought the team together. None were particularly sure of what to expect out of the Rhule coaching staff. Only new arrival transfer Josh Fleeks played for him at Baylor. Even then, Rhule could have changed his style after a multi-season stint in the NFL. They welcomed the change and eagerly participated, Rhule said.
The head coach isn’t the only one who felt an eagerness from the players. Defensive coordinator Tony White also sat in with Sharpe for a recent episode of Sports Nightly to discuss his impressions of the winter. White said players visited coaches’ offices to ask for film, tips and study points of emphasis. Through that eagerness, White said they’ve done some light install of his defensive system. He wants to throw as much at them as possible this spring. So far, the players have responded positively to that.
“These guys are running with it,” White said. “They’re absorbing a lot, a lot of guys are playing a lot of positions to start off.
“The really cool, neat thing is that they care enough to come over here in the evening time or they come over here in their extra time and, ‘hey coach can you explain this to me? Hey coach can I watch more film? Can I see this? All positions. All positions going to all coaches. It is truly amazing. Going back to the process, if you want to be good you’re going to do the things to make you good. You see a lot of guys in the building when they’re not required to be here because they want to be good. They want to learn.”
Tight end Thomas Fidone II is among the most eager for spring. He embraced winter competition and captained the winning team. He sat out last season with consecutive knee injuries and returns this spring with the opportunity.
Chief Borders was one of the top points earners in the winter. He transferred from Florida in December and learned the community. Then he learned his teammates. Now, he’s learning White’s complicated defensive system in pieces. Borders is a linebacker now, although that title is fluid in White’s defense. His responsibilities could change as the spring plays out.
“I love competition,” Borders said. “When it comes to pass rushing, getting to the quarterback, that would be one of my attributes, one of my jobs this season. So I’m ready for that.”
Competition and physicality are two traits of Rhule’s spring season. He’s called on meaningful contact this spring. They’ll adhere to all the NCAA rules in terms of how much contact, but they won’t tag off. He believes that contact will help instill the team’s desired identity of the hardest working, most competitive program in the country. Rhule already admitted the Huskers are competitive. He hopes to use the spring camp to focus on details.
“So can we take our sense of competitiveness and our toughness – this is a tough group – take that competitiveness and toughness and carry it over onto the football field and also add in precision and detail,” Rhule said. “If we can be really competitive and tough but also detailed and precise, we have a chance so I am anxious to start that process on the football field with the guys and then our job is to help each player find a way to get on the field and be in the right position so try to teach those guys as best we can.”
The fall is beyond the horizon. Nebraska’s 2023 season and the August kickoff with Minnesota sits in the distance. Coaches aren’t worried about that. There’s enough for this coaching staff to fit in 15 practices and the Red-White Spring Game to keep them occupied.