Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Quarterback Competition Highlights Nebraska Football’s Spring Season Storylines

March 14, 2023

One of the criticisms from Matt Rhule’s tenure with the Carolina Panthers was his inability to land a franchise quarterback. The Panthers released future franchise Hall of Fame quarterback Cam Newton the season prior, starting two other quarterbacks. Rhule took over and quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, P.J. Walker, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield didn’t yield desired results. Even another go-round with Newton didn’t take Carolina to the promised land.

Rhule’s collegiate quarterback coaching experience brings more clarity. Rhule coached the aforementioned Walker there, as well as Charlie Brewer. Brewer was a record-setting quarterback at Lake Travis High in Texas and became Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year at Baylor. He then started his next three seasons in Waco, becoming the second Bear ever to accrue 10,000 total yards. (However, after Rhule left Baylor, Brewer transferred to Utah before playing his final season at Liberty in 2022.)

The quarterback situation at Nebraska this spring is unclear. Casey Thompson started all but two games last season because of injury, which is also why he’s limited this spring. Thompson threw for 2,407 yards in a brand new offensive system under two separate head coaches after throwing for 2,113 yards for Texas the previous season. The quarterback showed toughness and confidence on the field and intelligence off the field—he graduated with a Master’s degree in December. But Thompson also showed his reluctance scrambling. He ran for five touchdowns last year but finished with minus-21 total yards rushing on 56 carries. Thompson connected with both Walker and Brewer within hours of Rhule’s introduction. The Oklahoma City native was encouraged by what both told him.

Competition at the position involves transfer arrival Jeff Sims from Georgia Tech. Rhule supported former coworker Geoff Collins by watching his Yellow Jackets from his spot in the NFL. In those games, Rhule enjoyed watching the dual-threat quarterback despite injury-riddled seasons. Sims threw for at least 1,000 yards and ran for at least 300 in all three seasons at Georgia Tech. Last season, when injuries prevented him from playing after October, Sims ran it 87 times and threw for 1,115 yards. In the 2021 season, Sims’ last full year, he ranked among top 10 quarterbacks in the country in scramble yards. Rhule said he recruited Sims from the transfer portal because he knew how talented he was and not because he anointed him the starter.

“If you feel them when they play, if they are accurate, if they are tough, in college football, if they can pick up first downs on their feet, if the team follows them, if they are winners, we should bring them on. So, to me, the more winners the better,” Rhule said. “I am just trying to find winners.”

To better contrast Thompson and Sims in their respective 2022 seasons, consider their supporting casts in 2022. Just one Georgia Tech receiver had more than 25 catches—Nate McCollum, 60—who is also the only one with more than 350 receiving yards. Only Trey Palmer and Marcus Washington had more than 20 catches and 250 receiving yards for Nebraska last year. Palmer set new program records for receiving yards and receptions for a receiver. Thompson completed 63.1% of passes on 274 attempts. Sims completed 58.5% of passes on 188 attempts. In the complimentary rushing game, three Georgia Tech players (including Sims) tallied 87 carries or more—the team ran for 1,606 yards. Anthony Grant was the only Husker with more than 35 carries last year and the team ran for 1,480 yards. In terms of total carries, there wasn’t much difference—Georgia Tech with 426 and Nebraska with 420.

They are the two marquee names jostling for reps in Marcus Satterfield’s pro-style offense. Quarterback Spencer Rattler threw for 3,380 yards in Satterfield’s offense at South Carolina last season. The highly rated Rattler also provided relief from the run game, where he was one of four to tally at least 60 rushes in 2022. While a  potential scrambler under center can diversify Satterfield’s offense, the offensive coordinator looks for leadership and game management in the huddled, pro-style system. Thompson’s injury this spring will limit his involvement, which opens reps to the entire quarterback room.

Chubba Purdy registered one of the top miles per hour among runners according to GPS measurements Rhule’s staff used this winter. Purdy struggled adjusting to games before a high ankle sprain ended his 2022 season. Rhule complimented quarterback Heinrich Haarberg, the dual-threat quarterback from Kearney Catholic. Haarberg posted one of the team’s top speeds and showed his athleticism during the inaugural Husker Olympics. Mark Whipple clearly did not see a place for Haarberg in last year’s system. The Kearney native’s future opens up at Lincoln now, potentially beyond quarterback if coaches a position he can make a bigger impact at this spring.

“There is a lot of good quarterbacks in that room,” Rhule said this winter. “I have watched practice tape on some. I have to get around them, but there is a lot of good players, and the best player will play with me. Scholarship, walk-on, freshman, senior, none of that matters to me.”

Coaches haven’t mentioned Logan Smothers at all this spring. The former 4-star dual-threat quarterback performed back-up or special package duties for the Huskers the past two seasons. Redshirt freshmen Mikey Pauley, Cooper Hausmann and Richard Torres are also still on the roster with something to prove this spring. Hastings High graduate and former walk-on Jarrett Synek, who traveled and played at Michigan as third-string quarterback last year, left the program this winter.

“To have the depth in the quarterback room is really exciting,” Satterfield said. “It’s a good room. Good problem to have.”

Rhule, who was unable to secure a franchise quarterback in the NFL, returns to college with four different quarterbacks on the roster who have started major college games. The mystery is which one of them, or if a dark horse candidate, emerges this spring.

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.