Matt Rhule prefers to believe the transfer portal would not have rewritten the best individual player success stories of his career. But these days, the what-ifs can linger.
The Nebraska coach boasts a lengthy résumé of formerly little-known prospects who broke out late in their college careers under his tutelage on their way to the NFL. They came. They got better. Player and team reaped the rewards together.
Exhibit A for Rhule is unquestionably former Temple star Haason Reddick, originally a walk-on defensive back in 2012 who was told he wouldn’t have a roster spot the next year. Enter Rhule and Co., who moved Reddick to linebacker and then defensive end en route to fringe All-America status and being a first-round draft pick in 2017.
One of Rhule’s best Baylor examples was safety Jalen Pitre, the only holdover commit in the 2017 class and a relatively nondescript recruit when the coach arrived in Waco. The eventual second-round selection capped his run as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in his fifth season.
What if they and others could have entered the portal on a whim or a promise?
“I wonder — I don’t know but I wonder — if some of those guys would have just gone somewhere else along the way and maybe not had that experience,” Rhule said on the Carriker Chronicles show.
If free one-time transfers were an option back then, would such players have sought to finish on larger Power Five stages? Would their individual breakouts have ended as emphatically under different coaching staffs? Current trends — with more than 2,000 FBS scholarship players entering the portal in the 2021-22 cycle alone — suggest many might have experienced different final acts.
For a turnaround specialist like Rhule, the onset of an open transfer market is a potential detour on the road to top-25 rankings and meaningful November football. A coaching staff whose ethos is rooted in identifying and developing high-school talent can now add college players with limited eligibility clocks. Unheralded recruits who unlock their abilities under Rhule can move on whenever they choose.
What does a developmental program look like in the quick-fix era of the portal? Rhule said it starts with taking the “right guys” as transfers. Players with good mindsets from other programs. Players changing locations for the “right reasons,” like a coaching switch. Players who, ideally, will be on campus longer than 6-12 months.
“What I don’t want to do moving forward is have a bunch of kids that fight in my program for four years and I just bring a one-year guy in every year over top of them,” Rhule said. “If we need to, we need to — it’s competition. But we want to get guys here for at least two years, three years. That’s kind of the hope. But everything’s on an individual basis.”
Nebraska’s portal results have varied greatly in two years of annual free agency. One-and-done hits featured the likes of receivers Samori Touré and Trey Palmer along with edge rusher Ochaun Mathis. Other newcomers were barely around long enough for fans and media to know them at all.
Longer-term Husker adds that grew into contributors include linebacker Chris Kolarevic, receiver Oliver Martin and — so far from the 2022 cycle — quarterback Casey Thompson, receiver Marcus Washington, kicker Timmy Bleekrode and punter Brian Buschini. Others could add their names next season.
While college transfer standards are new for Rhule, the former Carolina Panthers coach said he learned valuable lessons in the NFL that will benefit the Huskers. Like a good pre-draft meeting, evaluating potential additions goes deeper than statistics and sprint times. Backgrounds are important. Psych tests and medical reports — or the college equivalents of them — factor in too.
“I come back to college football from the NFL way more focused and understanding what needs to be done with these guys from a football perspective,” Rhule said. “Hopefully we can help guys — even if we have them for six months — play their best football.”
Nebraska sits at seven incoming transfers as the calendar flips to 2023. Only receiver/running back Joshua Fleeks is guaranteed to be done after next season, and the former Baylor playmaker already worked under Rhule in 2018 and 2019. Quarterback Jeff Sims (Georgia Tech) has three years to play two. Center Ben Scott (Arizona State) has two years of remaining eligibility. Safety Corey Collier (Florida), linebacker Chief Borders (Florida) and defensive lineman Elijah Jeudy (Texas A&M) each have three.
Most came from situations where they were underutilized or underdeveloped. Scott started at tackle for two years before making a “business decision” to move to center last season with an eye toward his future in the NFL. He knows he’s joining a staff with a reputation of making players better.
“There are always a lot of factors but I think this place (Nebraska) will help me be ready for the next level more than any others,” Scott said.
Sims, a three-year starter at Georgia Tech, said choosing the Huskers wasn’t necessarily about getting faster or stronger but more about bringing out “the intangible pieces of a true NFL quarterback” in himself. Details matter on and off the field, and he’s ready to learn.
“Their main goal is to develop players and that will lead to winning,” Sims said. “That stood out to me.”
Jeudy was a four-star prospect with top offers from around the country in the 2021 class. He said the “glitz and glamor stuff” drew him in as a high-schooler seeing college programs for the first time. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound interior lineman — coming from the SEC and an A&M position group stocked with former high-end prospects — saw just 21 snaps across four games in his first two college seasons.
The clock is ticking, he said. Working toward a pro career begins now.
“I think this time around it made me think all this is not fun and games — it’s business,” Jeudy said. “So we gotta put our foot down and keep going because if we’re going to make it to the NFL we have to grind it out.”
Meanwhile, retention has become a bigger priority as coaches must constantly re-recruit their own rosters. During in-house radio interviews this week, multiple Nebraska assistants said they believe the family atmosphere of the staff will mitigate departures or, at minimum, prevent surprise ones. Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton said coaches will know the personal lives and academic situations of their players along with the football side.
Nebraska has seen 16 Huskers transfer since October and roughly the same number go in the previous cycle. The biggest December loss, unquestionably, was freshman inside linebacker Ernest Hausmann, who landed at Michigan a few weeks later. NU also saw promising third-year edge rusher Jimari Butler enter the portal only to withdraw after a couple of days.
The portal window for players to enter closes on Jan. 18. Another one goes from May 1-15.
Such an environment makes developing talent more difficult than three years ago, Rhule said. Ease of transferring and name-image-likeness considerations — while not necessarily negatives on their own — aren’t allies of continuity and stability. Maybe those elements are enough to push some programs to lean more on the whims of the market when building their teams.
For Rhule and the Huskers, it makes a culture of development and winning all the more valuable.
“I’d love to have all of our high school guys stay for four or five years,” Rhule said. “I’m really just kind of banking on believing in the fact that when players believe you’re coaching them and when players feel like you care about them, they usually want to stay there.”