There is an abundance of Nebraska football storylines heading into Matt Rhule’s first fall camp at Nebraska, but one that I find particularly intriguing is a story of second chances.
Zavier Betts and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda both showed promise in a Husker uniform, but neither one of them was still on the team last October. Betts left the program — and the school — before the season while Garcia-Castaneda shut himself down four games into the season to maintain a redshirt and entered the transfer portal following the firing of Scott Frost.
However, after Nebraska hired Rhule, both players showed interest in returning to the program, and Nebraska’s new coach was willing to give them a second chance.
“Those two, they’re hungry,” wide receivers coach Garret McGuire said on Tuesday’s edition of Sports Nightly. “They’re so hungry. It’s not that they’re grateful, but they are. They’re very excited to be Huskers again. They’re very excited to be coached by Coach Rhule, Coach Satt, myself.”
McGuire said Garcia-Castaneda put on seven pounds of muscle in the spring and described him as someone who knows all three receiver positions and is very dependable and a good route runner with great hands who matches McGuire’s own enthusiasm for being part of the run game.
I’m focusing mostly on Betts here, however. McGuire said he took 21 credit hours in the spring in order to get back on track academically and become eligible, which is more than I ever took while I was in school, and I didn’t have to worry about learning a playbook or attending workouts while I was doing it. I think that shows Betts’ dedication to make the most of this second chance as much as anything. Rejoining that team wasn’t easy, but he’s done what he had to in order to make it happen — with some help along the way.
“I had a lot of help from the tutors and from the coaches and my family and some of my friends too,” Betts said during an interview with Jessica Coody aired on Tuesday’s Sports Nightly. “Because at times it did get really difficult, but I had everybody pushing me and keeping me going forward.”
Betts said it was an easy decision to rejoin the team, and he did it for his family and for the fans who he felt like he let down when he walked away last year.
Hurrdat Sports’ Damon Benning has more insight into Betts, his mindset and his background than most, and he spoke extensively at the time about some the factors that led to Betts’ decision to walk away. From what I recall, the gist of Benning’s thoughts was that football wasn’t necessarily the most important thing to Betts at the time, and he didn’t quite have the kind of relationship with his coaches that would kindle that love for the game.
It appears Betts has rediscovered that love for the game, and his connection with his coaches seems to be a big part of that.
“Coach Rhule wanted to help me work on myself as a person,” Betts said. “He knew what I could do on the field and he knows where his guys and his program can take me on the field, but our main focus has been off the field and that’s what we tackled this past semester … He believed in me, and I honestly just couldn’t say no. Having somebody like him come in and believe in me after me leaving, I couldn’t say no.”
Betts said it’s “really nice” to have the spotlight back on him in a good way and to be back with his teammates. His primary goal for spring ball and summer workouts was to earn the trust of his coaches, and his plan for doing so was to do everything asked of him exactly how his coaches asked for it. The result was Betts being ahead of where he thought he’d be after a year away, and he’s drawn praise from his teammates as well.
“It feels amazing,” Betts said. “Having the trust of my teammates back and just knowing that they believe in me just pushes me to a whole different level and makes me want to try so much harder just for them.”
Betts is a feel-good story regardless of how much he ends up contributing come the fall, but this storyline rises near the top for me because of what it could mean if he really hits. Rhule is no dummy. I have no doubt that the head coach is invested in helping Zavier the person, but as Betts himself said, Rhule also knows what the 6-foot-2, 200-pound wideout is capable of and how he can help this team.
“Zavier Betts, he looks different than all those other dudes when it just comes to, like, you see him burst off the football, you see some of the catches he makes and just how long he is,” McGuire said. “And then he’s another guy that’s from Omaha, and that means something to us. You talk about Coach Rhule, we want to play with kids that grew up watching Husker football.”
In his first two years with the program, the former 4-star recruit out of Bellevue West appeared in 18 games with six starts, recording 32 receptions for 317 yards and a touchdown and three carries for 109 yards and another score. He combines top-end speed with explosive leaping ability and he has the ability to be the type of big-play threat Nebraska really needs with Trey Palmer off to the NFL.
Betts was a lot of fun to watch in high school, and I’m looking forward to getting a chance to cover him again this season. If he can stick with it and earn a significant role come the fall, he has a chance to raise the ceiling of this offense. Pair his explosive playmaking ability with reliable veterans like leading returning receiver Marcus Washington and Virginia transfer Billy Kemp IV among others, and Nebraska should have the ability to do some real damage through the air.
McGuire said Betts and Garcia-Castaneda have grabbed this second chance and are running with it. I hope that continues, because it will be quite the story if one or both of them has a hand in leading this program to success after first walking away from it.