Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Matt Rhule Recaps Staffing Moves, Speaks on Early Signing Day Recruiting Flurry

December 21, 2022

While the college football recruiting world spun on its axis and an impending glacial front looms towards Lincoln, Matt Rhule was thankful to be on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium.

Rhule assembled media on the first day of the early signing period for his first public comments since his introduction on Nov. 28. He talked about his coaching staff and Nebraska’s 2023 recruiting class, which grew throughout his 30-minute press conference. At one point early in Rhule’s time as Nebraska’s new head football coach, the Huskers ranked behind No. 60 in the composite recruiting rankings. Nebraska ranked No. 28 when he walked away from the podium around 3 p.m. He said it wouldn’t have been possible without the infrastructure and coaches he’s assembled. So he thanked them with his opening statement.

He thanked athletic director Trev Alberts and the Nebraska support staff for their work. Most of them streamlined the process throughout his arrival, and his staff’s arrival, so Rhule was thankful for that. He also thanked the wives of his coaches in the transition.

“In a short amount of time when people are trying to figure out if they want to send their kids here, they don’t have much of a relationship with us and they’re trying to figure out who we are,” “Wives, assistants coming from places all across the country, flying in and getting to know people to make sure they know what we say is real.

“We want this to have a family feel. We want this to be a family, not just a football team.”

Rhule said quickly building relationships may have been the biggest challenge. Nebraska’s head coach, in his 24th day on the job, said it’s a difficult thing to convince families in that time to send their aspiring football player to Lincoln for four years. He believed honest and direct communication helped bridge that gap.

The new head coach reiterated the importance of in-state recruiting. He traveled across Nebraska on the recruiting trail after his first week on the job. While a few local standouts decided to cross the Missouri River, Rhule still clinched nine native signings, including national target Malachi Coleman from Lincoln East. He reiterated there’s talent in Nebraska and they’re happy they’ve got the ones who signed.

“The key to long-term success is for ever fourth, fifth, sixth grader in the state of Nebraska to grow up dreaming of playing out here,” he gestured out the windows to Tom Osborne Field. “They have to see other kids just like them do that.”

Rhule said he wants those kids who will “fight for their university.” The easiest way to instill that is simply winning. But by doing it the right way and focusing on the daily building process.

Nebraska heavily recruited defense during this period. Rhule said he isn’t recruiting to fit a 3-3-5 or any specific system because they’ll move players to different positions as they fit team needs. He’s not beholden to one system and wants flexibility to be creative, that’s why he chose Tony White as the program’s defensive coordinator.

Rhule also rebuffed some of the skepticism around Nebraska’s offensive line play last season. He chose to retain Donovan Raiola because of his coaching background and the two share similar influences. In short, Rhule, a former line coach, and Raiola see eye to eye on core offensive line philosophies. Positive player response to Raiola meant a lot to Rhule as well.

Building a culture among his staff was a high priority for Rhule. Bringing in recruits for visits last weekend was cold and it was far from home for most. But there was running backs coach EJ Barthel and defensive line coach Terrance Knighton. They uprooted their lives to be a part of this new era in Nebraska.

“I think it set a great message to them that they believe in what Matt’s doing and some would even leave NFL jobs to come work for him,” Rhule supposed. “Then I can trust him as well.”

Rhule estimated seven or eight former players will fill his coaching staff by the time it’s completed, he said. That won’t include celebrity coaches or agendas. They’ll all have their strengths and buy into a united vision for the program. That likely involves old-school values in a modern way, he said. Some of that includes engaging on social media, sometimes tweeting out suggestions from recruits. Rhule said he doesn’t read what’s said because he doesn’t feel it’s healthy, but he’ll communicate on it.

The new head coach met with players from last year and laid out his plans. He said those who enter the portal are always welcomed and communicated with.

Rhule said he didn’t think the process that helped him be successful at Temple or Baylor will necessarily help him win at Nebraska. One thing he learned from numerous NFL coaches, he said, was the ability to adapt to environments. Soon the College Football Playoff will include home site games. Rhule said he wants to build a team that can win in Nebraska in December.

He also touched on a few members of Nebraska’s 2023 recruiting class. While the class is still open for additions, the foundation was laid with ink hitting paper on Wednesday.

Eight in-state prospects signed their letters of intent on Wednesday to play on scholarship at Nebraska in 2023. Elkhorn South edge Maverick Noonan, Omaha Westside duo Tristan Alvano (kicker) and Jaylen Lloyd (receiver), Gretna lineman Mason Goldman, Creighton Prep lineman Sam Sledge, Scottsbluff lineman Brock Knutson and Lincoln Southeast lineman Gunnar Gottula all joined the recruiting class. Lincoln East product Malachi Coleman, the top in-state recruit in the 2023 class, picked Nebraska over Colorado.

Nebraska also officially signed cornerback Dwight Bootle II from Miami and cornerback Syncere Safeeullah from Hermitage, Tennessee, via IMG Academy. A quartet of standouts from Texas will also enroll at Nebraska. Argyle lineman Riley Van Poppel, Manor edge rusher Princewill Umanmielen, Bay City receiver Brice Turner and Cypress linebacker Dylan Rogers all officially joined Nebraska on Wednesday. As did receiver Jaidyn Doss from Peculiar, Missouri, lineman Vincent Carroll-Jackson from Philadelphia, running back Kwinten Ives from Beverly, New Jersey, lineman Jason Maciejczak from Pierre, South Dakota, and safety Rahmir Stewart from Philadelphia. Nebraska also secured a commitment from Ardmore, Oklahoma, linebacker Eric Fields, who Rhule said will be “an elite player” for Nebraska.

Along with those high school students comes a number of transfers, either via the portal or through junior college. Edge rusher Kai Wallin, previously from American River Community College, is coming to Nebraska. Nebraska added a trio of former Florida players through the portal, longsnapper Marco Ortiz, cornerback Corey Collier Jr. and edge rusher Chief Borders. Former Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims also signed with Nebraska after announcement his commitment earlier in the week. In a singing day announcement, former Texas A&M edge Elijah Jeudy announced he’ll join Nebraska as well.

Rhule’s historic Baylor ties helped the Huskers secure a decision-day transfer. Former Baylor wide receiver Josh Fleeks is transferring to Nebraska, where he’ll be a sixth-year senior.

Out of the 21 who signed by the time Rhule finished speaking on Wednesday, 12 of them saw their signings through the coaching change. The rest either didn’t see a concrete future in Nebraska until at least November 25, when the university announced Rhule as the new head coach. Rhule hit the recruiting trail and started assembling his staff even before the university hosted his official introduction on November 28. Lloyd, for example, was Rhule’s second scholarship offer, made in conjunction with the Nebraska track team. On the flip side of that came late-push efforts like Maciejczak. The Pierre, South Dakota, lineman received a scholarship offer and an official visit invitation late last week. He was committed to North Dakota and a snow storm kept him from attending. But after a Zoom session he decided to flip his commitment and sign for Nebraska.

At this point, Nebraska’s 2023 recruiting class ranks No. 28 in the country, No. 5 in the Big Ten. But that’s just at 4 p.m. There are more potential Huskers on the board adding to the flurry and the inevitable winter storm still hadn’t hit Lincoln.

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