Hayes: Matt Rhule's Year 1 makeover at Nebraska is taking shape -- 1 transfer at a time
This is a player procurement business, and Matt Rhule has zeroed in on an intriguing strategy.
Nebraska’s new coach isn’t just embracing the transfer portal, he has a specific resume he’s recruiting for the Rhule Plan: You’re either a productive college player, or you’re a former elite recruit.
Either way, he’s banking on his staff to develop players for immediate impact in Year 1 at Nebraska. Because the days of waiting 2 or 3 years for a program to breathe and develop are over.
It’s build for now, sustain later.
“It’s just about taking the right guys from the portal,” Rhule said last month on national signing day. “The NFL really helped me in terms of what kind of impact we can make on a guy in a year.”
So have the results from college football’s first full year of the transfer portal and free player movement, and the impact of NIL.
Last year alone, USC, TCU, LSU and FSU used the portal extensively and hit big. In 2021, those 4 teams combined for 20 wins.
In 2022, after bringing in a combined 63 players (an average of 16 per team) from the portal, they combined for 44 wins — and 3 of the 4 were playing in their conference championship game. TCU made the Playoff. USC would have had it won the Pac-12 title game.
Nebraska sits at 11 portal signees, and more are on the way after spring practice when the portal reopens on May 1 for 15 days.
Any new additions will almost certainly follow the resume of the first 11: production or potential.
Receiver Billy Kemp had 192 career catches at Virginia, and center Ben Scott had 28 starts at Arizona State. Quarterback Jeff Sims, who was Rhule’s No. 1 priority, has had 3 uneven years at Georgia Tech (30 TDs, 23 INTs), but has NFL skills and ability.
Receiver Josh Fleeks was a 4-star recruit from Rhule’s time at Baylor and had 43 catches in his first 2 seasons as a top backup. He was moved to running back in 2020 by the new staff, and will now return to wide receiver at Nebraska.
Then there’s the potential from the remaining 7, each with their own not-so-unique path from heralded high school recruit to lost college player.
Tight end Arik Gilbert was the No. 5 overall recruit in 2020, and had a big freshman season at LSU before sitting out a season and playing backup minutes while buried in Georgia loaded tight ends room.
Edge MJ Sherman was the No. 35 overall recruit 3 years ago but couldn’t get on the field at Georgia with a defense full of NFL players. Same with massive Georgia OT Jacob Hood, a 4-star recruit in 2022 who was buried on the depth chart behind 4 tackles who will play in the NFL.
If you’re sensing a common theme, you’re beginning to understand the foundation of the Rhule Plan. Former elite recruits buried on the depth chart, hoping to find their former selves with a program that desperately needs impact players.
Like former Florida 5-star safety Corey Collier, the No. 6 player at his position in 2021, who couldn’t get quality time at a deep position that included 3 upperclassmen and a 5th-year senior (Trey Dean III).
Or former Florida edge Chief Borders and Texas A&M edge Elijah Jeudy, both 4-star recruits from 2021 and among the top players at their position.
The philosophy behind the Rhule Plan is simple, just like it was during Rhule’s turnarounds at Temple and Baylor: It doesn’t matter what you were before, you can only be what you are now.
Rhule is banking on his staff’s ability to develop the lost blue-chips, and motivate them with the one thing that eliminates all previous problems and obstacles: the path to the NFL.
It’s not unlike the philosophy he has taken with current Nebraska players who wallowed through losing seasons under former coach Scott Frost. The only thing that matters is who you are now.
Most stayed, but some left for the portal and others asked to return. One critical returnee was dynamic WR Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda, who transferred from New Mexico State in 2022 but never connected with the staff.
He had 4 catches for 120 yards and 1 TD in the season-opener against Northwestern, but caught 1 ball the rest of the season. Former Nebraska interim coach Mickey Joseph said this season that Garcia-Castaneda wanted to the No. 1 receiver, and “we just couldn’t do that for him.”
In that sense, Garcia-Castaneda is not unlike what Rhule wants from the portal: the productive and the potential. And players full of motivation.
“We were really honest and direct with people,” Rhule said. “Some kids it was right for, and some it wasn’t.”
There’s no time to sugarcoat it. It’s build now and sustain later — and hit big this season with the Rhule Plan for the transfer portal.
Or there’s another 3-9 or 4-8 in the Huskers’ near future.