Photo Credit: Erin Sorensen

Year One For Everybody: New Arrivals Blending Into Nebraska Football Roster

March 09, 2023

Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule considers this a first year for pretty much everyone. This coaching staff is almost entirely new, save for a position coach and a rare graduate assistant. Coaches also welcome 39 new arrivals to its football roster in the fall. About half of them are on campus right now.

During the dubbed “team commitment week”—which is this week—Rhule doesn’t send the schedule to staff in advance. He waits to send it out first thing in the morning. That’s a move that’s drawn anxiousness among staff members but it comes with a purpose. Everyone is on the same level if you’re willing to invest the work.

Rhule’s welcoming mentality encompasses the program. A former walk-on at Penn State, Rhule’s said there won’t be separate locker rooms or borders distinguishing scholarship players from non-scholarship players. His staff put an emphasis on in-state recruiting while increasing presence and comfort for recruits from across the country. Present and future Huskers from Texas will be greeted by wide receivers coach Garret McGuire and tight ends coach Bob Wager. Those two aren’t just from Texas, they’re beloved by large packs of the football community there.

Transfers from all over the country arrived at Nebraska during the offseason. Rhule’s coaching staff brought in 11 through the portal, his first transfer portal class, and seven come from the SEC. (That’s on top of 28 conventional signings.) Three come from Georgia (Arik Evans, MJ Sherman, Jacob Hood), three from Florida (Marco Ortiz, Corey Collier and Chief Borders) and former Texas A&M edge rusher Elijah Jeudy. The remaining four transfers are quarterback Jeff Sims, receiver Billy Kemp, receiver Josh Fleeks and offensive lineman Ben Scott. Borders feels the entire roster is congealing during winter workouts, something Rhule also senses.

“I think they’ve all been happy to be here and appreciative to be here, Rhule said. “It’s a great place, everyone welcomes them in. It can be difficult sometimes adjusting to new protocol, new process, but that’s what everyone is doing.”

Rhule pointed out Borders specifically for his integration, by becoming one of the top points earners during the team’s winter competition. He credited Borders’ work in the community, in class and drive on the field. Rhule went as far as to say every place Borders goes, that place is better off for it. The occasional viral video star joined teammates in visits to local elementary and middle schools to conduct assemblies on bullying and leadership.

“As a newcomer I felt it was important for me to get around the community and show my face,” Borders said.

Rhule’s previously said this transfer portal class is unusually large. This comes a year after former head coach Scott Frost brought in 15 players through the portal. Most of those immediately contributed to Nebraska’s success in the 2022 season. Trey Palmer and Ochaun Mathis stood out and then left for the NFL Draft. Casey Thompson, Marcus Washington, Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda, Anthony Grant, Hunter Anthony, Kevin Williams, Stephon Wynn, Tommi Hill, Brian Buschini and Timmy Bleekrode all played important roles for the Huskers last season. Williams and Anthony have since left the program and Garcia-Castaneda nearly did the same before returning under Rhule. Even Chubba Purdy, who emerged as the second-string quarterback, arrived via transfer portal.

The majority of those transfers return with experience. They can share their stories of transferring into Lincoln to help the new arrivals feel more at home. Borders, and the other six new arrivals from the SEC, can confide with former SEC transfers now at Nebraska.

“Coming from Florida, it’s a different type of ball game coming to the Big Ten,” Borders said. “Coming to the Big Ten, ground and pound, running the ball, coming back to my Midwest roots, originally from Chicago, It feels great.”

The vast majority of last season’s portal arrivals found immediate playing time. On its surface, the same is the intention for this most recent portal class. Kemp is an experienced receiver who has coaches excited for his return ability. Fleeks is a speedy receiver who Rhule recruited to Baylor. Ortiz is likely the starting long snapper. Collier and Borders should compete for spots in Tony White’s defense right away. Sherman’s look from winter workouts lend promise to his high-end defensive contributions. Scott has Power 5 starting experience at center and offensive tackle. Evans is a former 5-star tight end with a sky-high ceiling with the right support system at Nebraska. Jeudy and Hood could be more developmental with little college experience and snaps so far.

Rhule wanted to be selective in portal recruiting. If one of his players sees a brighter future there, he won’t withhold a player from entering the portal. He’s said he wants what is best for that young person. Rhule’s also trying to build Nebraska into a welcoming environment that aspiring football players want to be part of.

“We don’t we want to be the hugest transfer team,” Rhule said earlier this winter. “We want to recruit high school student-athletes and watch them develop over four or five years. 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.”

That’s where the team commitment week comes in. Videos released by Nebraska show a united team, regardless of experience in Lincoln. New faces toil through workouts alongside homegrown Huskers. After the workouts they inevitably huddle. They’re a competitive group in activities, a mirror image of their competitiveness on the field. Rhule hopes to hone that, sharpen it through workouts that meld new faces with an experienced core into a team that competes. And, in the best case scenario, wins right away.

“Who doesn’t want to win?” Borders smiled on Monday.

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