One of the first questions Matt Rhule faced in his introduction involved the transfer portal. It didn’t exist the last time he coached college football. How would he approach the new player acquisition/depletion tool?
He wanted to study the portal more, that much he knew. Rhule also told the assembled crowd at the Hawks Championship Center that the best teams utilize the portal to some extent. And his coaching staff would leave no stone unturned when scouting for talent. Two years later, he’s certainly brought talent through the portal to Lincoln.
“We don’t we want to be the hugest transfer team. We want to recruit high school student-athletes and watch them develop over four or five years,” Rhule said earlier this month. “But, if someone is somewhere else and they really love Nebraska and think this is the right place for them, I want them to be here.”
Rhule likes the 11 Nebraska got from the portal. So it’s worth assessing the portal haul.
The first arrival was Marco Ortiz from Florida. Ortiz was originally the No. 6 long snapper out of high school in Virginia. He won the starting job at Florida with a perfect snap record in 2021. He played in just one game last season before an injury. Cameron Pieper, last year’s long snapper at Nebraska, will not return to the program in 2023.
Rhule and his coaching staff wanted to reset the roster, to some extent. They liked the existing talent within the program but wanted to build depth with that talent. For example, coaches weren’t interested in getting a running back from the portal. They liked the group of backs returning in 2023. At quarterback, Nebraska courted two portal players but gained just one. Rhule watched Georgia Tech games while he was in the NFL to support his old colleague Geoff Collins (fired as head coach at Georgia Tech this season). He liked watching quarterback Jeff Sims play. Some of Rhule’s NFL friends sold him on Sims. This makes for an interesting quarterback battle with last year’s starting quarterback Casey Thompson, who will be sidelined for the majority of spring ball as he heals from shoulder surgery.
Nebraska also gained receivers Billy Kemp and Josh Fleeks through the portal. Fleeks had a combined six carries and nine catches in five games the last two seasons. He is also a graduate of Cedar Hill, finishing a year after wide receivers coach Garret McGuire graduated from Cedar Hill. Kemp was a two-star recruit out of high school who developed into the fourth all-time receptions leader at Virginia. His 1,774 receiving yards are the 10th most in Cavalier history. He’s an undersized-yet-explosive return man in addition to his abilities on offense. Kemp struggled with injuries in 2022 and accepted the NCAA’s offer to immediately transfer from Virginia for a final year of eligibility following the shooting of three teammates. He chose Nebraska as the spot for his final chance. Considering the depth in the receivers’ room, competition for offensive snaps won’t be easy for either.
“We want to be dynamic on special teams, we want to score on special teams,” Rhule said last week. “I’m not saying we will, but we want to. He’s a big key to that because having a veteran punt-returner, kick-returner, especially in the conditions here will be really important.”
Former highly acclaimed recruit Arik Gilbert comes to Lincoln with an opportunity to play tight end right away. Gilbert was the highest-rated tight end recruit ever out of high school. He had 35 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns at LSU as a freshman. He transferred to Georgia where personal issues limited his statistical output to two catches and a touchdown in two seasons. Former Husker Jake Peetz told Rhule about Gilbert and they both believe Gilbert can be successful in Lincoln. With Nebraska’s top two tight ends from 2022 bound for the NFL Draft, opportunity beckons to him.
Nebraska brought in Ben Scott and Jacob Hood for offensive line depth. Scott started at right tackle for Arizona State and played in all but 14 offensive snaps in 2021 before moving to center. He started 11 games at center in 2022. He’ll likely play center at Nebraska. Hood was a composite 4-star offensive line recruit out of Nashville before enrolling at Georgia. His potential is high if he can grow into his 6-foot-8 frame at guard or tackle but he’s still a developmental prospect. Both will have to earn their spots but Scott seems primed to win a starting job immediately. Hood, however, isn’t as sure of an immediate starter.
“I think all those guys, to me, are really good players and they have a chance to help us,” Rhule said of the three former Georgia arrivals through the portal. “They also have the right mindset to play at Nebraska.”
On the defensive front, Elijah Jeudy and Chief Borders also arrived at Nebraska from the SEC. Jeudy was a composite 4-star recruit who enrolled at Texas A&M but couldn’t see any significant playing time in two seasons. Borders came to Florida as a linebacker but mostly played special teams in Gainesville. He eventually developed as an edge rusher. At linebacker, Mekhail Sherman comes to Nebraska via Georgia. The former 5-star recruit tallied 13 tackles across three seasons in Athens. Sherman couldn’t quite crack through a loaded linebackers room but played a team-high 226 special teams snaps in 2022. He’s a contender for immediate playing time going into spring ball. Both have to earn their spots in a crowded position inside an evolving defense.
Finally, Corey Collier Jr. joins the Nebraska secondary. He’s a former composite 4-star recruit from Miami Palmetto, the same high school as former Husker Dicaprio Bootle and class of 2023 signee Dwight Bootle. His athleticism is among the best at the position but he could benefit from assured tackling, recruiting pundits said. Collier had one tackle in each of his first two seasons in Florida, playing mostly on special teams. Nebraska’s secondary returns a lot from 2022 so he’d have to leapfrog someone to make an immediate impact.
“I like some of those things that we’re able to bring in,” Rhule said. “I had a lot of success over the year bringing in guys who are fast and finding the right position. For us to increase our team speed, I’m not saying the previous team was slow, but just to bring in that level of speed, to me, is really important.”