Matt Rhule doesn’t buy the narrative. In his 30-minute press conference on Early National Signing Day, Rhule’s blunt statements about last year’s offensive line stood out.
Nebraska’s new head coach assured the room, and the Husker fans within earshot of the airwaves, next year’s offensive line will be good. Rhule believes a team cannot win if it doesn’t win the line of scrimmage and he takes a lot of pride in the offensive line. His assessment of last year’s ills went deeper than the trenches.
“I think we have to have an identity on offense of what we are going to do,” Rhule said. “When you are trying to figure out if you are a throw it or run team, you put those guys in hard positions.”
Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, now quarterbacks coach instead of tight ends coach as originally planned, is also assistant offensive line coach. That should embolden offensive-line conscious play calling. Rhule likes the offensive linemen in the program now. He hopes to empower them through this offense.
“I am going to fight for those guys. I like those guys,” Rhule said. “We have tried to bring in some depth. We wanted to bring in a great young group that we can develop and watch them grow.”
Nebraska’s 2023 recruiting class so far includes six line additions. Five of them are on scholarship and one is Oakland-Craig preferred walk-on Grant Seagren. Those are the guys Rhule wants to see develop in his system. Senior Hunter Anthony, junior Turner Corcoran, junior Teddy Prochazka, senior Nouredin Nouili, senior Ian Boerkircher, junior Ethan Piper and junior Bryce Benhart are all returning offensive linemen with considerable experience. The Huskers looked to the portal for offensive linemen but haven’t signed one, at least as of yet.
Omaha native Kevin Williams Jr. entered the portal earlier this month after his only season in Lincoln ended early with injury. Injuries chipped away at Nebraska’s offensive line depth last season. The offensive line went unchanged for the first and last three games of the season but rarely maintained starters in between.
Core issue or not, the offensive line has to improve in 2023. Nebraska quarterbacks were sacked 33 times last season. Casey Thompson was sacked 24 times alone, not including the hit that sidelined him 10 quarters. Knockdowns and hurries came in waves. Then there’s the running game. Nebraska led at some point in all but two games last season. That includes Northwestern, Wisconsin, Georgia Southern losses. The Huskers could have seized control of those games with a consistent push forward. But the Huskers ranked No. 103 nationally in first down rate, moving the chains at least once on just 63.5% of drives.
Last year was Raiola’s first at Nebraska. He’s going into his 12th year coaching, having spent four seasons as assistant offensive line coach before joining Scott Frost’s coaching shift. Raiola is the only holdover from that staff. On Wednesday, Rhule revealed some of the reasons why. Surprise, it chronicled back to part of Rhule’s past.
Longtime offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (now at Notre Dame) trained Raiola. Hiestand’s brother-in-law is Pat Flaherty. Flaherty was the offensive line coach for the New York Giants during 2012 when Rhule was assistant offensive line coach. They come from a similar coaching tree and subscribe to the same offensive line philosophy. Rhule interviewed several candidates and told Raiola they’d let him know how that search unfolded. Raiola continued his job, albeit in limbo, throughout the process. Rhule said that their shared philosophy and player response weighed heavily into his decision to retain Raiola.
“I have never ever in my life asked all the guys at their position about their coach and not have one guy say they don’t love him,” Rhule said. “Even a young man that went into the portal that I have known since I recruited him at Baylor said, ‘I will stand on the table for that man.’ So that meant a lot to me coming from the players even a guy that is leaving saying I believe in him.”