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Nebraska Football: 3 Priorities for New Coach Matt Rhule in 2023

Athlon Sports 2/20/2023 Steven Lassan
© Provided by Athlon Sports

A complete breakdown of five key roster priorities for new Nebraska coach Matt Rhule to address in 2023.

It's a new era at Nebraska, as Matt Rhule returns to the college game tasked with returning the program back into a consistent winner and much more relevant on a national level. Once a national power, the Cornhuskers have slipped significantly in recent years. The program has recorded six consecutive losing seasons and just 16 Big Ten victories since '17.

However, Rhule's arrival has sparked optimism for improvement. Nebraska returns 16 starters for '23, and the cupboard isn't completely bare in terms of talent. Also, a couple of additions through the portal should help this team right away. Getting back to a bowl would be a good first step for this program and set the foundation for bigger and better things in '24 and beyond.

For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, add through the transfer portal, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors, and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.

While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.

Here’s an early look at three personnel question marks for Rhule to address in 2023:

Nebraska Football: 3 Priorities for New Coach Matt Rhule in 2023

Start the Quarterback Battle (Sort Of)

With the arrival of the transfer portal and the ability of players to move more freely throughout their career, fewer coaches are likely to declare a winner coming out of spring practice quarterback competitions. If the battle extends into the fall, the passers involved in that are less likely to leave after the spring and leave a void under center or for depth.

That scenario isn’t likely to come into play at Nebraska this offseason, but this spring is the first chance for Rhule and coordinator Marcus Satterfield to evaluate what they have in returning starter Casey Thompson and transfer addition Jeff Sims from Georgia Tech. Considering all of the transition surrounding the offense, as well as Thompson's limited availability due to offseason surgery, this should extend into the fall. However, the competition should make both passers better, as Sims and Thompson have flashed potential.

Sims ranked as the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 signing class and played in 25 games at Georgia Tech. Despite some question marks about the offensive line and questionable coaching, the Florida native threw for 4,464 yards and 30 touchdowns and added another 1,152 yards and 11 scores on the ground. In 10 games with Nebraska last year, Thompson threw for 2,407 yards and 17 touchdowns to 10 picks and added five rushing scores.

Sims likely has the edge in raw talent, but Thompson has familiarity working in his favor after holding the No. 1 spot on the depth chart as the team’s starter in ’22. Both quarterbacks are learning a new system, so this spring is all about gaining valuable experience and reps to set the stage for the battle in the fall when Thompson is back at full strength.

Improve the Offensive LineBuilding a physical team and offensive identity is something Rhule accomplished at Baylor and aims to do again in Lincoln. But reaching that level won’t be possible without continued development by the team’s offensive line.

Assistant Donovan Raiola tutored the line last year and was retained by Rhule for ’23. In Big Ten play last season, Nebraska averaged only 2.8 yards per carry and surrendered 24 sacks. However, this unit lost starting left tackle Teddy Prochazka in mid-September to a season-ending injury. Also, guard Nouredin Nouili – a projected starter last year – was ruled out for the ’22 campaign in June.

Can Raiola and Rhule get this group moving in the right direction this spring? The good news is this group has options. Prochazka, Nouili, Bryce Benhart, Turner Corcoran and Ethan Piper all return with starting experience. Also, Arizona State transfer Ben Scott could push for a job right away on the interior. Starting center Trent Hixon and guard Broc Bando are the main departures after ’22.

Although the spotlight will be on the quarterbacks, the development of this group is just as crucial for Rhule. 

Settle the Defense New coordinator Tony White is steeped in the 3-3-5 approach, but this spring is his first chance to evaluate the personnel and find the right fits and scheme at every level.

Up front, Nebraska has to get tougher against the run after allowing 189.1 yards a game last season. And unfortunately for Rhule, that number didn’t look any better when examining conference-only matchups (172.1). Texas A&M transfer Elijah Jeudy and junior college product Kai Wallin could help out in the trenches right away.

At linebacker, the Cornhuskers have the makings of an intriguing group with Luke Reimer, Nick Henrich and Georgia transfer MJ Sherman expected to rank as the top contributors. Florida transfer Chief Borders is another name to watch this offseason.

Nebraska finished ninth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense last year, but the bulk of this unit returns, including All-Big Ten honorable mention cornerback Quinton Newsome.  

If the play in the trenches takes a step forward, Nebraska has reason for optimism on this side of the ball. Can White start to put the pieces in place and find the right scheme and fit for personnel this spring?

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