Two transfer portal windows, six weeks of winter workouts, 15 eventful spring practices and a well attended spring game are in the books. The Matt Rhule era in Nebraska football is a step closer to its inaugural season. Now, the Husker are just weeks away from reuniting for summer workouts.
The charismatic head coach won over doubtful Husker fans with his introduction and continues to build goodwill with his approach. His coaching staff brings different ideas that unites its collective vision. The staff immediately assembled a class of 39 newcomers, conventional recruiting and portal arrivals. About half of them showed their value during the spring season and the others join their new teammates later this month.
So what’s next? Rhule made an opening statement following the Red-White Game, first addressing the fans and players interacting. He felt it important the players thanked the 66,000 fans in attendance. The second statement was solely about the players.
“I think these guys have done everything I’ve asked them to do,” Rhule said. “They’ve gotten better and better and better and like to play football, even down to the very end, trying to go down and score, give them some of those reps. No one’s looking at me, no one’s complaining. They like to compete.
“I think this summer is so crucial to our team. The ability to focus for three hours—we saw some walls in there with the ball on the ground and all that—that’s really the next step, when you have the ability to focus for three-and-a-half hours straight. I liked the progress we’ve made so far.”
Returning offensive lineman Ethan Piper mentioned the need for the line to continually improve. He echoed the philosophy of offensive line coach Donovan Raiola, who stresses constant improvement. Piper felt the spring went well and put the team in a good position. He called the next few components on the team’s schedule huge in terms of meeting potential.
“I think spring is great but we get a little break and we kind of have to reset,” Piper said. “How we handle now until the first game, I think if we handle it the right way we feel like we’re standing in the fall.”
Linebacker Michael Booker III, who impressed coaches with his move from corner, agreed with the head coach’s drive to get 1% better. Early enrollees Cameron Lenhardt and Princewill Umanmielen said the same things after the Red-White Game. That was their first time playing in front of Husker fans and their springs showed they have bright futures at Nebraska. Lenhardt and Umanmielen both had four tackles in the spring game. Three of Umanmielen’s were for loss, including one 16-yard sack (with some complimentary work from fellow early enrollee Maverick Noonan). Rhule doesn’t see any reason why both won’t play significant snaps in the fall. While grateful and excited for what they accomplished in the spring, both bought into Rhule’s vision for the team. The early enrollees already soaked in the staff’s emphasis on accountability.
“Everybody has to do their part for it to work,” Umanmielen said. “If you don’t do your part then something’s missing in that, in the big picture.”
Other new faces mentioned accountability after the spring game. Linebacker MJ Sherman only arrived through the winter portal window but comes from leadership. He feels he’s always held leadership traits, possibly passed down from his father, a senator in Liberia. Sherman had four tackles, 1.5 TFLs in the Red-White Game. More than performance, he wanted to earn teammates’ respect while being trustworthy and accountable.
Sherman and quarterback Jeff Sims both mentioned the need for players to become leaders in the program. Rhule and his staff set the foundations throughout the spring to guide players into the start of a new era. With that foundation laid, Rhule told the Huskers it’s on them to carry the culture forward. Sims said the team is close to accomplishing that goal and is even embracing a leadership role now. He garnered praise throughout the spring and had the best quarterback performance of the spring game. With three scholarship quarterbacks entering the transfer portal, including last year’s starter Casey Thompson, many will turn to Sims as an offensive leader.
Sherman, on the other hand, is part of a stacked positional room on defense. Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich were both withheld from most spring activities as they return from separate injuries. Sherman’s adaptability within Tony White’s defense could serve as a benchmark moment among the defense and his willingness to buy into the new system could set a standard for future recruits. Reimer and Henrich are two native Nebraskans who have played a collective 63 games. Essentially, they’re torch bearers for the greater Nebraska tradition. Sherman admitted after the spring game that he cannot claim a leadership role with entitlement. He has to earn it entirely, on the field and off. He’ll be well situated among the defense to do so this summer.
“Not only should we be hearing things from the coaches, we hear things from ourselves, from the leaders on this team, from the captains on this team,” he said. “We’re the one that does that, we’re the one that does the discipline. We’re the one that holds everybody accountable, not the coaches. Let them coach football, let us coach us.”