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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska Running Backs Coach E.J. Barthel and Matt Rhule’s Communication-Based Approach

January 27, 2023

From the Memorial Stadium sixth-floor podium at Early National Signing Day, Matt Rhule was asked about his coaching staff. Pointedly, Rhule made the leap himself, why is the staff so young? On his recent appearance alongside former Husker Will Compton and former Michigan lineman Taylor Lewan on their podcast Bussin’ With The Boys, Rhule shared some frustration over pushback he received hiring Garret McGuire as wide receivers coach. McGuire turns 24 next week.

You haven’t been winning and you hired me to win, Rhule said on the bus. Let me do my thing.

The handful of coaches already introduced to local media in Lincoln shared excitement for their coworkers. They all get along, at least partially, because they believe in the same things. Sure, they all have ties to Rhule one way or another. But the head coach brought them to Lincoln because he has a vision for the program’s new era. And they all believe in that vision.

“They have seen firsthand how the way that we do things affects lives,” Rhule said on Early National Signing Day. “It affected their life, hopefully. And now they are going to pour into other people’s lives.

“There is not going to be any celebrity coaches, there are not going to be guys with different agendas. There isn’t going to be this coach saying this and this coach is saying this. We are all going to have one purpose. There is a vision. There is going to be a brand of football that we play, and they all believe it.”

One of the immediate examples of this is running backs coach E.J. Barthel. He started as director of player personnel at Temple for one season before becoming recruiting coordinator at Penn State. He wanted to be a head coach but he wanted to learn player evaluation. Barthel reached out to Rhule for advice before making the change. Did he want to become a coach? Yes. Then go coach, Rhule told him.

Barthel’s journey took him to various college levels and then to the Carolina Panthers with Rhule. But, as Nebraska’s new running backs coach, his most relevant experience comes from his previous stint at UConn. The Huskies came off a 1-11 season, arguably the worst college football season in some time, before Jim Mora brought Barthel in for 2022. In total, the Huskies ran for 1,215 yards during that dreadful season. They more than doubled that last year with Barthel leading the position—2,483. Barthel got emotional when asked about his players at UConn. In one year he built a connection with them and saw them create success through work.

“The kids really bought in and I’m thankful for each and every one in that group,” Barthel said recently. “I think I cried about three days in the transition process because of the connection with those guys and how hard they played and practiced for me. If you watched a UConn game last year I hope the one thing you were able to see was the effort out of that running back unit and how they ran the football. And how much pride they had in each rep.”

That’s what the former fullback is hopeful to cement within Nebraska’s running back culture. He already likes what he’s seen on film from Anthony Grant, Ajay Allen, Emmett Johnson and Gabe Ervin Jr. Coaches weren’t interested in the transfer portal with that group. They knew there’s something special there. So there’s immediate promise for the next chapter at “the original RBU,” as he referred to Nebraska.

Barthel said Rhule and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield all share the same desire to utilize a fullback. They are, to use a favorite word among this coaching staff, aligned in their mentality and purpose. They believe in Rhule’s message to build connections with coaches, recruits and parents. Energy radiates from the staff because there’s a friendly competition there. A competition they hope spreads like wildfire among the roster in spring ball as some fight for a spot on the football team.

“It goes back to everything we do in our culture. The biggest thing for us is we’re people coaching people and the No. 1 thing is communication,” Barthel said. “Being able to communicate, whether it’s easy or difficult conversations. That’s the reality and we’ll do a great job pushing each other as staff and a great job of pushing each other as players.”

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