Matt Rhule traversed over 1,000 miles across Nebraska as soon as the off-site recruiting window opened. He met with recruits and coaches as far west as Scottsbluff and got acquainted with Interstate 80 between Omaha and Lincoln. It all starts here, he said.
Nebraska rose to national prominence multiple times. At each point, native Nebraskans played important roles. Huskers like Hastings native Tom Osborne, Omaha native Johnny Rodgers, Omaha South graduate Dave Rimington, Columbus native Joe Blahak, Omaha Central’s Ahman Green, Brainard native Joel Mackovicka, Millard North graduate Eric Crouch or Beatrice native Cam Jurgens. Obviously, those are just a few names in a legacy spanning a half century.
There aren’t any Nebraska natives on this coaching staff so far. Offensive line coach Donovan Raiola, the sole holdover thus far from the previous coaching staff, is the closest Husker tie. And yet, during the national recruiting onslaught, in-state connections struck a chord. Homegrown kids understand Nebraska football’s place in lore now as well as they did 25 years ago. There lies untapped potential in the Rhule era.
“The key to long-term success is for every fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh-graders in the state of Nebraska to grow up dreaming of playing out here,” Rhule said. “They have to see other kids just like them do that.”
Nebraska’s 2023 recruiting class so far includes 12 in-state athletes, the most in-state talent signed to Nebraska in over 20 years. Eight are on scholarship and four are preferred walk-ons. Scholarship athletes reach as far west as Scottsbluff with Brock Knutson, back to Lincoln (Malachi Coleman, Gunnar Gottula), Gretna (Mason Goldman) and Omaha (Jaylen Lloyd, Tristan Alvano, Sam Sledge and Maverick Noonan). The walk-ons stretch from Omaha (Cole Ballard and Korver Demma), Bennington (Cayden Echternach) and out to Oakland (Grant Seagren).
“It was very evident right away how good this state is,” special teams coordinator Ed Foley said. “But there’s players in this state and they’re coming to Nebraska. There have been some other schools who have gotten in here and made some headway recruiting in Nebraska. That’s over. We’re coming in now.”
Rhule stopped at Lincoln High on the first day he could get off campus to recruit. It was the first time in over a decade the Huskers’ head coach visited Mark Macke’s program. Macke previously told Hail Varsity that Rhule and his coaching staff clearly did their homework on his players. He came away impressed. Coaches then visited Lincoln Southeast, Omaha Westside, Gretna, even Bishop Neumann in Wahoo. They stuck to the mission.
“We want to recruit Nebraska, we don’t want to let anyone leave the state of Nebraska,” Omar Hales told Jessica Coody. “If there’s a good player there, we want them to be here and be a Cornhusker.
“What we can do is bring local guys in who want to be part of this, they know the tradition, they know what it takes, their families, they’ve seen it their whole lives. We want to bring those guys in.”
Hales also said they want to recreate the legacy Nebraska football lore was founded upon. That includes homegrown line play. Four of the eight scholarship players, five in total, play on the line. It’s a throwback to the pipeline of old with homegrown Huskers brought in to develop. That’s what Rhule said he intended to do with them. Rhule called one of those line commits to introduce himself. Knutson told Rhule it was nice to meet him but it didn’t matter. He’d play at Nebraska no matter who the coach is and that resonated with the head coach.
“This is how we are going to build this,” Rhule said. “With big, physical tough guys from this region. How much those guys loved Nebraska, how much it meant for them, to see that helmet, to come on these visits, it struck me. It really gave me a sense of purpose.”
Nebraska’s new head coach also loves speed on the outside. And he didn’t have to go outside the state much to find it. That surprised him slightly when he arrived. Secondary coach Evan Cooper, who loves player evaluation, told Rhule to take the job and call Jaylen Lloyd. Rhule’s second scholarship offer went out to Lloyd to play football, while working with the track team so he could run there as well. Lloyd, an Olympic hopeful, signed to stay in Nebraska instead of solely run track at Florida. Another local speedster, who happened to be the top in-state target was Lincoln East’s Malachi Coleman. Coleman’s hectic recruiting process ended with him picking the hometown team over Colorado and star-studded head coach Deion Sanders.
Of course, there are some in-state kids Nebraska wasn’t able to sign. Gretna star quarterback Zane Flores never wavered from his Oklahoma State commitment. Benjamin Brahmer from Pierce flipped his commitment from Nebraska to Iowa State amid the coaching change. Kade McIntyre at Archbishop Bergan in Fremont signed with Oklahoma and Kade Pieper of Norfolk signed with Iowa. And, despite a late push to flip him, Lincoln High’s Beni Ngoyi held firm to his Iowa State commitment and signed with the Cyclones.
Rhule wished them all the best on their next steps. He wished all the best to the in-state football players, no matter what level they’re signed to play. Some of them he’s already met along his in-state journey. For others he simply ran out of time. He’s excited about upcoming recruiting classes and intentions to host multiple clinics. He made it clear that keeping in-state talent depends upon connections. Build those connections and invite them to Memorial Stadium. The best already play their State Championship games there.
“We saw good football. The coaches were great. The people were great,” Rhule said. “But the biggest thing that hit me was how much those guys just really want to play football for the University of Nebraska, and they want to be part of a championship team here.”
That’s the ultimate goal. Rhule and this staff wants to bring Nebraska back among the elite programs in the country. Nebraskans played a prominent role in those teams. He believes they will again.