Almost on schedule, 100 days into his Nebraska assignment, Matt Rhule on Monday laid out his broadest vision of qualities the head coach is likely to develop on his first team at the school this year.
Rhule said in an interview to summarize the winter training program and preview spring training that the Huskers have used the past seven weeks of conditioning and drills to build a brotherhood. He said he’s found that while Nebraska players are “very, very, very competitive,” they sometimes struggle to master details.
It’s a common misstep for collegiate athletes, he said, but Rhule intends to make improvements in spring training — his favorite time of the year.
“If we can be really competitive and tough, but also detailed and precise,” he said, “we have a chance.”
Rhule singled out tight end Thomas Fidone and linebacker Chief Borders, a transfer from Florida, to answer media questions Monday. Fidone, a third-year student, captained the winning team in the Huskers’ winter competition. The system awarded points for community service, attendance at Nebraska sporting events, and triumphs at daily practice.
Borders and Tackle Teddy Prochazka collected the highest single score. It wasn’t easy, Fidone said.
“True leaders will emerge from these competitions,” he said.
At least that’s Rhule’s goal. He designed the offseason program to build accountability and promote unity.
“We want to be a team that doesn’t beat itself in the game,” Rhule said. “We always want to talk about people’s physical ability or their performance. That’s great, but tell me how accountable they are, tell me how available they are, and I’ll tell you if they’re a good player or not.
Further insights from the Monday interviews:
Fidone is in a good place
The former four-star signee, a front-runner for a jump in 2023, said he’s aiming to get started this spring.
The first of 15 training sessions is scheduled for March 20th. Fidone suffered two injuries to the same knee in each of the last two springs, each requiring surgery, after enlisting early in 2021 from Lewis Central in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
“My expectations haven’t changed at all,” said Fidone, who is No. 2 nationally in that class of 2021. “I think I can be the Mackey Award winner. I believe I can be the best tight end in college football. I think I can be a first round pick, a second round pick. It’s just I’ve had a few setbacks.”
At 6ft 6 he weighs 250lbs to get into the source. Fidone was one of the best captains Rhule has ever appointed in winter competitions, the coach said. As far as Fidone’s skill level goes, Rhule likes that too.
“The first time I saw him move,” Rhule said, “I was like, ‘Wow.’ He’s tall, lanky, athletic. You only see the athletics. He doesn’t look like anyone who’s ever been hurt.”
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Despite this, the coaches will not rush Fidone’s return
Rhule said it was his “job” to prevent re-injuries: “We have to make sure things are fully healed.”
The pain of just two injuries made Fidone stronger, he said. He said he feels well enough to return during last year’s season. In fact, according to Fidone, former staff coaches were frustrated by his absence after Fidone performed well in training with lower unit squads.
“I was yelled at on the sidelines for not being able to play,” Fidone said.
The decision to leave Fidone on the shelf came from Nebraska medical staff. He was not cleared for contact, Fidone said.
“A setback is a setup for a big comeback,” said Fidone. “I don’t think it changed the goal. Only the timing has changed.”
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Borders fits in well
Originally from Chicago, Borders graduated from Heard County High School in Carrollton, Georgia. A four-star signee for the Gators, he transitioned to redshirt in 2021 and last year mostly played on special teams.
In Nebraska, Borders used the winter drills to network with his teammates, as Rhule intended.
“He has a plan,” Borders said of Rhule, “and we believe in it.”
Borders has a big, magnetic personality. It already excelled in its time with the Huskers.
“I don’t want our boys to be just football players,” Rhule said. “Chief is someone who I think is a TikTok star.”
A TikTok post Borders made last month featuring Nebraska pole vaulter Jess Gardner has been viewed 3.5 million times. He received a request from ESPN to use the video – in which Gardner attempted to teach the 6-4, 240-pound limits how to pole vault.
“I guess we’re on the right track,” he said.
Borders said he loves new experiences and “just having fun.”
“One thing I know,” said Rhule, “wherever Chief ends up on any given day, that place will be better for him once he’s been there. That, to me, is the true mark of a man.”
What to see, predictions for Nebraska’s roster in defense, special teams in 2023
Do many think of a QB recruit?
Rhule is forbidden under NCAA rules from speaking about recruiting prospects, but he raised a question Monday about the Huskers’ handling of the quarterback position as they assemble their Class of 2024.
It was, of course, a veiled reference to Dylan Raiola, the Phoenix star and national No. 1, who visited Lincoln two weeks ago during a dead spell and plans to return the last weekend in March. A signing from Raiola would likely give a huge boost to the Huskers’ recruitment efforts in several need positions.
Rhule said he could “get in trouble” if he answered in too much detail.
“In general, I always want every student-athlete that I recruit to come because they want to come at the right time for the right reasons,” Rhule said. “I don’t get lost in ‘I need this guy to get this guy.’ That’s not me.”
Raiola, the son of former Nebraska All-America center Dominic Raiola and nephew of Huskers offensive line coach Donovan Raiola, visited USC this past weekend. Dylan will be visiting Georgia the weekend of March 18th.
The planned visit to Nebraska at the end of the Huskers’ first full week of spring training would provide Rhule’s first opportunity to speak extensively with Raiola in person. Rhule visited Raiola’s former school in Arizona in January to watch the quarterback practice.
But as a high school junior, Raiola isn’t allowed to have an extended face-to-face interview with a recruiter unless it’s outside of a deadlock on a college campus.
“I want[recruits]to watch us train,” Rhule said. “I don’t know how you could commit to playing for me without watching me do a mat practice or practice. ‘Cause I am who I am I don’t change for anyone on the pitch.”
(Photo: Steven Branscombe / USA Today)