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Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Matt Rhule Wants Reliable Leaders of Action as Nebraska Spring Season Looms

March 15, 2023

Former head coach Scott Frost was fired nearly three months before Matt Rhule took over at Nebraska. In Frost’s short stint leading the Huskers in 2022, he praised the team’s leadership. He saw possibly the best leadership on a single team he coached in Lincoln.

A studious Rhule and his coaching staff studied social media clips and practice tapes with game film from last season. Within those film study sessions, Rhule saw locker room speeches. That didn’t entirely comfort him.

“If you got to give a speech in the locker room (it) usually means you’re getting your tail beat,” Rhule said earlier this month. “To me, leadership is who’s the first guy in the building, last one to leave, who does everything right.”

The first taste of actual football under Rhule is less than a week away. So far, he’s watched winter workouts and hopes those actions prepared the Huskers to prove themselves and cleanse the program of losing seasons. His coaching staff structured a competition during those workouts, which inherently produced leaders.

Thomas Fidone II is coming off his own frustrations of not playing last season due to injury. In his quest to ensure a return to the field, he held his teammates accountable during the offseason competition. He wrangled nearly a dozen of his teammates to places and actions. Their team pulled away to a big lead before Team Competition Week in the final week of winter workouts.

“Fidone, he just wants to win. The last week if you got all your teammates to a match and took a picture you got double points,” Rhule said. “He finds a way to get it done, he likes to win and is very competitive.”

Returning punter Brian Buschini garnered praise from Rhule regarding leadership. He arrived in Lincoln last season as a transfer from Montana. Not only did Buschini stand out among the best punters in the conference, he toughened through the last half of the season with a foot injury suffered against Rutgers. Buschini also pledged his return to Nebraska almost immediately and recently announced he’ll change his number to No. 18 to honor Brook Berringer this upcoming season. One of the videos the Huskers’ social media team produced involved Buschini breaking down the final huddle of the day.

Rhule also highlighted new arrival Chief Borders. The Chicago native transferred from Florida this offseason with a noted reputation for his character and positive attitude. Borders wanted to be involved in the community upon his arrival. Elliott Brown and Chubba Purdy went with him to give assembly talks to middle schools about bullying. Rhule stressed community involvement as points of leadership and his players responded.

Workouts, class attendance, grades, homework, community involvement and outreach are all tough to juggle for college athletes. Those are also cornerstone traits for the culture Rhule is instilling at Nebraska. Some players didn’t meet the standard.

“We had to replace a captain or two because they weren’t quite doing everything right,” Rhule said. “This was good for our team to realize that when ‘who you say you are’ is the same to who you actually are and what you actually do, you are living a pretty good life. When you’re not you’re getting exposed.”

Rhule’s wavered when asked about leadership. Different settings, different framings of the question garnered different responses. In a meeting with local media, Rhule said he’s hesitant on vocal leaders. He doesn’t want “spokesmen” on the field. In a sit down conversation with Greg Sharpe for an episode of Sports Nightly, the head coach said he could learn who has those leadership traits in winter conditioning. He acknowledged this offseason is new to everyone. So they all entered on even footing with a clean slate.

“I think you see guys who attack it, it’s kind of a continuum of who can do it during spring ball, who can do it during training camp,” Rhule told Sharpe. “What happens when you’re a team leader and you’re not getting the success you want? Can you put the team first? Can you be happy for the guy at your position that may be playing more than you?”

Ultimately, Rhule said he’ll know for sure who their leaders are during the season when the players are faced with in-season adversities. Those who stay consistent and reliable for their teammates likely emerge as leaders.

Both Rhule and defensive coordinator Tony White complimented linebacker Nick Henrich during the offseason. They liked his work on film. The Omaha Burke graduate was also quick to introduce himself to the staff. Henrich is the only returning team captain from 2022, as voted on by his teammates. An injury that ended his season last fall is also keeping him from full participation this spring. That leaves a wide open field for other Huskers to step into on-field leaderships as needed this spring.

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