Matt Rhule’s first spring at Nebraska has already begun, and to be perfectly honest with you, I feel like I know the least about this team of any I’ve covered since I joined the beat in 2015.
This is the second time I’ve covered a football team post-coaching change (my first year was Mike Riley’s first in Lincoln, but I didn’t cover the team the previous season).
Nebraska’s leading returning rusher is currently suspended while its second-leading rusher is recovering from a season-ending injury. The team returns its starting quarterback, but he won’t be able to participate in spring ball and the new coach made his own addition to the room. The team lost its leading receiver and the top returner had less than half as many yards last year. Its top two tight ends are gone, as are the team’s most disruptive defenders in the front seven.
Who are the best players on this team? Does Nebraska have any all-conference guys ready to break out? I have no idea.
With a new coaches, new systems and 46 new players either already on campus or headed there come the summer, there’s a lot to figure out this spring. With that being said, I’m power ranking the positions based on how intrigued I am this spring, from least to most.
Let’s get to it.
T-No. 9: Place Kicker, Punter, Long Snapper
I put these three in a tie for last not because I don’t value special teams but rather I think all three are pretty straightforward.
Timmy Bleekrode started all 12 games last season at kicker and was solid. Sophomore walk-on Spencer Pankratz is the only other kicker who returned while Tristan Alvano will join the group as a scholarship commit this summer.
Brian Buschini is back at punter after averaging just over 44 yards per punt last season, and junior walk-on Jacob Hohl is behind him.
Senior Marco Ortiz transferred in at long snapper, and I doubt they’d offer him a scholarship spot to ride the bench. Walk-on sophomore Camden Witucki also returns at that spot.
There’s a big gap between the specialists and the rest of the roster.
No. 8: Defensive Back
Nebraska returns every defensive back who made a tackle last season except for two, and this two combined for five tackles. Granting a return to full health for Marques Buford Jr., Nebraska will have all of its starters back, which makes for more knowns than almost every other position.
Outside of Buford’s health, the biggest question probably centers on the configuration in the back end and what it will look like in Tony White’s defense. Will it be the same as last year with two safeties, two starters and a hybrid linebacker/safety at nickel?
Regardless, Quinton Newsome, Marques Buford Jr., Myles Farmer, Malcolm Hartzog and Isaac Gifford with Tommi Hill and Javin Wright as guys potentially pushing for time is a solid group to start with, even if it may lack obvious star power.
No. 7: Offensive Line
This position would be much higher if I was ranking based on importance, but this is about spring intrigue, and I’m not sure how much we’ll actually be able to learn until they’re playing football for real.
Getting a healthy Teddy Prochazka back is the first priority. Beyond that, what does Nouredin Nouili look like coming off of the year-long suspension? How will Arizona State transfer Ben Scott fit in at center? Which position will Turner Corcoran play? Can Georgia transfer Jacob Hoof push for playin time at tackle?
Again, there is only so much we can learn about this position during the spring. Hopefully year two under Donovan Raiola’s tutelage will show significant improvement.
No. 6: Quarterback
I’m betting you weren’t expecting to see this position so soon, but we’re looking strictly at the spring here and a very important part of it in Casey Thompson is going to be severely limited or sidelined entirely throughout.
I’m looking forward to seeing what Jeff Sims can do, particularly in the spring game way at the end, but we’re going to have to wait until fall camp once Thompson is back in action for the competition to truly begin.
No. 5: Linebacker
I feel pretty confident in Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich holding down two of the starting spots, so long as they’re healthy. Henrich is working his way back from an injury but Reimer said he’s currently full-go.
Beyond those two, I have no idea what to expect. Will the third be Jimari Butler, who entered the portal following the coaching change before opting to stay a Nebraska? Or will it be one of the transfers, MJ Sherman or Chief Borders? Garrett Snodgrass is still around after an injury-plagued sophomore season, but what about the underclassmen? Is any of Randolph Kpai, Seth Malcom or Mikai Gbayor ready to crack the rotation? What about Kaine Williams moving up from safety?
Nebraska’s trio of experienced edge rushers in Garrett Nelson, Caleb Tannor and Ochaun Mathis is gone, as is the EDGE designation on the roster. Butler, Sherman, Borders and freshman Maverick Noonan look to be the outside linebacker types while the rest of the scholarship guys in that room look to be more of the inside ‘backer type. I’m looking forward to seeing how the coaches move those pieces around.
No. 4: Defensive Line
Ty Robinson is the only full-time starter back up front as the Huskers lost Colton Feist and Devin Drew in addition to those three edge rushers. Nebraska could really, really use a breakout season from the former 4-star recruit (which was true last season and didn’t really materialize). Is this the year he becomes a difference-maker?
The 305-pound Stephon Wynn Jr. and 330-pound Nash Hutmacher are back after logging seven and five tackles, respectively. Texas A&M transfer Elijah Jeudy joins the group at an even 300 pounds while Ru’Quan Buckley is looking to earn some paying time after seeing the field once in his first two years on campus.
Then you have the smaller, edge-types. Blaise Gunnerson slides from edge to defensive line at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds while JUCO transfer Kai Wallin is listed at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds. Brodie Tagaloa switched from tight end to defensive line at 260 pounds, though he isn’t currently healthy. Then you have a group of five freshmen ranging from 230 pounds to 300, two of which are already on campus in Princewill Umanmielen and Cameron Lenhardt.
Terrance Knighton has a lot of different body types at his disposal but not a ton of experience. I’m looking forward to seeing how he sorts it all out and what Nebraska’s defensive front is going to look like within White’s defense.
No. 3: Running Back
Having your leading returning rusher start the spring on the suspended list certainly isn’t ideal, especially when he could really benefit from all the reps and instruction he can get coming off a promising but uneven first year at Nebraska.
Keeping Ajay Allen out of the portal was one of the first big wins for Rhule and his staff after taking over in Lincoln, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing him back on the field after his season-ending injury.
Gabe Ervin Jr. said on Monday that he’s feeling healthy again after struggling through last season following the knee injury that ended his first year. Rahmir Johnson is still hanging around.
And then you have the fullback position — what does that look like and how much will this offense really utilize it? Seward native Trevor Ruth transferred in from UNK (becoming the third Ruth brother to play for the Huskers) and the coaches also moved the 240-pound Sam Hoskinson from offensive line to the running back room. Both those guys are walk-ons, however. Could someone else factor into that picture?
No. 2: Tight End
Nebraska lost 31 of its 37 catches, 340 of its 392 yards and three of its four touchdowns from the tight end position with the departures of Travis Vokolek and Chancellor Brewington. The only returner in the room who touched the football last year was walk-on Nate Boerkircher (six catches for 54 yards and a score).
So who steps into Vokolek’s shoes? Is this the year we finally get to see what made Thomas Fidone II the top-ranked tight end in his recruiting class after injuries essentially wiped away his first two seasons? He certainly hasn’t lost any of his confidence.
Does Arik Gilbert — another highly-touted recruit now trying to find his place at his third school — get a waiver to play this season, or will he simply be a practice player? Is AJ Rollins ready to carve out a role, or does Boerkircher remain a top option? What about the redshirt freshmen who were moved to the position, Janiran Bonner and Jake Appleget?
Tight end is a complete wildcard to me.
No. 1: Wide Receiver
In each of the last two seasons, Nebraska has had a transfer come in and make waves as the team’s No. 1 option in Samori Touré and Trey Palmer. Could Virginia transfer Billy Kemp IV make it three in a row? Or will the team’s top returning wideout in Marcus Washington emerge as the go-to guy after catching 31 passes for 471 yards and one touchdown last season?
How does Baylor transfer Joshua Fleeks factor into the picture? What about Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda and Zavier Betts, two guys who left the program only to be welcomed back after Rhule took over. Betts is already doing stuff like this.
Oh yeah? 😁 @zavierbetts1 pic.twitter.com/YqdDSTGG3Z
— Huskers Talk | 𝙉𝙚𝙗𝙧𝙖𝙨𝙠𝙖 𝙎𝙥𝙤𝙧𝙩𝙨 (@TalkHuskers) March 22, 2023
Rhule also signed six freshman, though none of them are on campus yet. I’ll be curious to see if any of them can break through in the fall and carve out a role for immediate playing time.
But right now we’re focused on the spring. This is a big opportunity for Betts and Garcia-Castaneda to show Rhule he can rely on them, or for Washington to show he can be a No.1, or for Kemp to show he’s a perfect fit for the new offense.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.