January 31, 2023

This is a player acquisition business, and Matt Rhule has focused on an intriguing strategy.

Not only is Nebraska’s new coach welcoming the transfer portal, he’s also recruiting a specific resume for the Rhule plan: You’re either a prolific collegiate player or a former elite recruit.

Either way, he relies on his staff to develop players for their first year in Nebraska. Because the days of waiting 2 or 3 years for a program to breathe and evolve are over.

It is now built, later preserved.

“It’s just about getting the right people off the portal,” Rhule said on national contract signing day last month. “The NFL has really helped me, what an impact we can have on a man in a year.”

So did the results of the transfer portal’s first full year of college football and free player movement, and the impact of NIL.

In the past year alone, USC, TCU, LSU, and FSU have used the portal extensively and achieved great success. In 2021, these 4 teams together achieved 20 wins.

In 2022, after pulling a total of 63 players (16 per team on average) from the portal, they combined for 44 wins – and 3 of the 4 came in their conference championship game. TCU made the playoffs. USC would have won the Pac-12 title game.

Nebraska has 11 portal signers and more are on the way after the spring exercise when the portal reopens for 15 days on May 1st.

All new additions will almost certainly follow the résumé 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 #1 priority, had 3 uneven years at Georgia Tech (30 TDs, 23 INTs) but has NFL skills and abilities.

Receiver Josh Fleeks was a 4-star recruit from Rhule’s days at Baylor and had 43 catches as a top backup in his first two seasons. He was promoted to running back by the new staff in 2020 and will now return to wide receiver in Nebraska.

Then there’s the potential of the remaining 7, each with their own not-so-unique path from announced high school recruit to losing college player.

Tight end Arik Gilbert was ranked No. 5 overall in 2020 and had a great freshman season at LSU before sitting out a season and playing backup minutes while buried in Georgia.

Edge MJ Sherman was the 35th overall recruit 3 years ago but couldn’t come on the field with a full NFL defense in Georgia. Ditto for the 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.

When you sense a common theme, you begin to understand the basis of the Rhule plan. Former elite recruits buried on the depth map hoping to find their former selves with a program in dire need of influential players.

Like former Florida 5-Star safety Corey Collier, the No. 6 player at his position in 2021, who couldn’t get quality time in a deep position that included three seniors and a senior sophomore (Trey Dean III) belonged.

Or former Florida Edge Chief Borders and Texas A&M Edge Elijah Jeudy, both 4-star 2021 recruits and among the top players at their positions.

The philosophy behind the Rhule plan is simple, just like 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 the ability of its people to develop the lost blue chips and motivate them with what will remove all previous problems and obstacles: the path to the NFL.

It’s not dissimilar to the philosophy he’s pursued with current Nebraska players who have wallowed in lost seasons under former coach Scott Frost. The only thing that matters is who you are now.

Most stayed, but some went to the portal and others asked to return. A critical returnee was dynamic WR Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda, who joined from New Mexico State in 2022 but never came into contact 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 caretaker coach Mickey Joseph said this season Garcia-Castaneda wants to become the No. 1 receiver, and “we just couldn’t do that for him.”

In that sense, Garcia-Castaneda is no different than what Rhule wants from the portal: the productivity and the potential. And players full of motivation.

“We’ve been really honest and direct with people,” Rhule said. “For some kids it was right, for others it wasn’t.”

There’s no time to sugarcoat it. It is built now and later maintained – and has seen great success this season with the Rhule plan for the transfer portal.

Or there’s another 3-9 or 4-8 in the Huskers’ near future.

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