LINCOLN — Matt Rhule can check the names on the backs of their workout shirts, or he can just shake their hand again for a reintroduction.
When a Nebraska football coach has spent too much scouring America to add nearly 40 new players to the roster, the names of the current players may escape him for a second.
“I literally had to say to the guys, ‘Hey when you walk up and say hello, for the first couple weeks, introduce yourself again,” Rhule said Wednesday. “I’m meeting 120 new players. There’s one of me and 120 of you.’”
Rhule might be short only a couple. While Nebraska has 149 players currently listed on its roster, 21 scholarship signees, and a number of walk-ons, aren’t on campus yet. So, with seven 2023 scholarship signees who enrolled early, 11 transfers and two receivers — Zavier Betts and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda — joining the returning group of players, NU’s roster numbers are in the low 120s. That’s the group going through winter conditioning with new strength coach Corey Campbell.
“He’s unbelievably demanding,” Rhule said of Campbell. “Players sometimes feel that you’re either for them or against them. He can hold you really accountable and they still know he’s for them.”
A month of work awaits. Then, in mid-March, spring break. After that, Rhule begins his first camp, culminating with the April 22 spring game.
Between now and then, the time is right for a roster reset.
World-Herald and Journal Star writers will break down eight different Husker position groups for new faces, recent departures and key storylines headed out of Signing Day. The reset will include players signed but not yet enrolled, examine returning production, and ask a key question that lingers in the space between the 2022 season and before 2023 camp begins.
The reset begins in a logical place. Quarterback. The one position group where Nebraska returns all of its production from 2022 — every snap, too — and adds an intriguing new player, Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims, to the race for starter.
Casey Thompson won that job last offseason, his play a cut above that of backups Logan Smothers and Chubba Purdy. Thompson also battled injuries, missing 2½ games — all losses — after he got hit in the throwing arm. After beating Iowa, he got offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder and will miss spring camp. So will Smothers.
Sims, whose 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and running style evokes memories of Robert Griffin III, will participate in spring workouts.
“Obviously I’m going to go in there and have to compete — I would have to do that anywhere,” Sims said in December. “So I’m excited to meet the guys and build relationships with them. Compete with them and learn everything I can from them and teach them things that I know.”
That line fits Rhule’s hopes for the quarterback position before spring camp. Invariably, he said Wednesday, any quarterback’s natural charisma will win over his teammates. So signal callers can take a good first step, Rhule said, by getting “1% better” each day and being the same person among teammates that they are among coaches.
“If quarterbacks are going to have voluntary throwing on their own,” Rhule said, “and they show up five minutes early, and they're prepared, then that will have an impact on everybody else.”
Kicking off the roster reset with a look at the Husker quarterbacks:
Who’s Here: Casey Thompson, Logan Smothers, Chubba Purdy, Jarrett Synek, Heinich Haarberg, Richard Torres
Who’s Gone: None
Who’s New: Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims
Returning production: 100% of snaps, attempts, yards and touchdowns
Look back: Nebraska turned the page from four years of Adrian Martinez by leaning on Thompson, who threw for 2,407 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, until he injured an arm nerve in a loss to Illinois. The Huskers scuttled through the Minnesota and Michigan games with Purdy and Smothers, both of whom battled through injuries, until Thompson came back to nearly beat Wisconsin and then break a seven-game losing streak to Iowa. Thompson drew raves for his savvy, toughness and deep passes, and he was more mobile than previously believed. Costly interceptions in the Northwestern and Purdue hurt the Huskers’ chances, too. Purdy’s best work came in a truncated first half against Michigan, while Haarberg and Torres didn’t come close to sniffing a snap. Ultimately, the production in 2022 was a tick below Martinez’s work in 2021 and came with roughly the same amount of turnovers.
Spring ahead: In adding Sims (4,464 passing yards, 1,152 rushing yards, 41 total TDs) Rhule is giving Thompson – returning for a sixth year – genuine competition. A dynamic runner, Sims will enjoy more weapons at Nebraska than he had in his last year at Tech, and what’s more, he’s healthy for spring camp. Sims can snap a deep ball but has to find better accuracy for intermediate routes. Thompson and Smothers will sit out spring, giving Purdy, Haarberg and Torres a crack at more practice snaps. It’s unlikely that, by May, NU has six scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, especially if the Huskers land 2024 five-star QB Dylan Raiola. Sims has a chance to get a leg up in the inevitable race against Thompson, who tends to exceed expectations.
Key Question: Surrounded by more options and Rhule’s specific coaching, does Sims cut down on turnovers? Sims has thrown a pick in about 3.6% of his attempts, worse than Rhule’s QB at Temple, P.J. Walker, and his quarterback at Baylor, Charlie Brewer. Respective to his opponents, Sims didn’t have a ton of weapons at Georgia Tech after Jahmyr Gibbs left for Alabama. While games are the best measurement of a quarterback’s ability to balance risk and prudence, there are things NU will be able to assess in spring camp. Thompson, recovering from a labrum surgery, will only be able to watch.
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