Matt Rhule stepped onto the field turf about halfway through Nebraska’s Pro Day workout inside the Hawks Center. For once, few eyes were on the new head coach.
As now-former Huskers sprinted through three-cone drills, shuttle runs and position showcases in front of a crowd of NFL scouts Wednesday morning, Rhule stood on the periphery as a fellow supporter. He embraced linebacker Garrett Nelson and chatted for a few moments. He conversed with NFL center Cam Jurgens for perhaps 20 minutes. Former NU tight end Austin Allen — now with the Green Bay Packers — exchanged a few words with the new guy leading his alma mater.
Pro Day itself resembled previous iterations as players followed a morning schedule from bench presses to vertical jumps in the North Stadium weight room before moving to the indoor facility. A typical hush fell over onlookers during the 40-yard dash. Participants — Nebraska had 14 this year — spoke with media members afterward about their performances and what’s next for them with the NFL Draft (April 27-29) coming fast.
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Unlike past years, though, these outgoing Huskers didn’t have their familiar coaches on hand to bear witness. Only former special teams and defensive coordinator Bill Busch was in the building, along with Donovan Raiola, who was retained as offensive line coach under Rhule.
Linebacker Caleb Tannor said the distinction was almost lost on him. He’s been training at Nebraska since the season ended in Iowa City nearly four months ago. He’s talked plenty with the new coaches. Observed some encouraging signs, too.
“I feel like they’re a great staff,” Tannor said. “They’re going to change a lot of things I feel are good changes. The attention to detail they’re doing — how everyone’s got to wear the same stuff, little things like that — is great.”
Tannor said he felt “at home” Wednesday during what for many amounted to a blend of a family reunion and meeting the new in-laws. Many of Nebraska’s current assistants milled about, including offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield and receivers coach Garret McGuire. So did support members like Vince Guinta (director of player personnel and recruiting), Ron Brown (director of player support and outreach) and CJ Cavazos (director of football relations).
At least one connection to the Mike Riley era was also present in Gerald Foltz, the father of the late Sam Foltz, who punted for the Huskers in 2016.
Rhule made it clear to every former Husker: They’re welcome back whenever they want to train or just catch up.
“His staff and him, they’ve had no affiliation with me, but they’ve given me all the respect and everything I’ve needed,” Nelson said. “They’ve treated me like their own and had really good things to say about what they heard about me. I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Draft-prepping tight end Chancellor Brewington said he “wouldn’t even think twice about it” if he had more eligibility to stay at NU. Receiver Trey Palmer — who worked out but didn’t run the 40 after recording a 4.33-second mark at the NFL Combine earlier in the month – has only heard positive things from former teammates about the transition.
Allen and Jurgens both departed for the NFL after Nebraska’s 2021 season. They happened to meet Rhule in the parking lot before a recent workout but enjoyed their first extended interaction with him Wednesday. Whoever helped build this place, Rhule told them, can return anytime.
“It’s always, ‘Whatever you guys need, I’ll find it,' or, 'Whatever you need, let me know,’” Allen said. “It’s always looking out for us, looking out for our best interest because he knows we’re in a big step of our lives right now. You see everything on social media, so it was good to finally meet him in person.”
Jurgens — fresh off a Super Bowl appearance with the Philadelphia Eagles as a rookie — is training at Nebraska this offseason and wanted to show support to old friends Wednesday. He also couldn’t help but be optimistic about what could be in store for more of his former teammates still with the Huskers.
“There’s a lot of change and I’m excited to see what happens,” Jurgens said. “It’s a lot of cool things happening, a lot of new coaches, and it’s cool seeing some of the changes already.”
All 32 NFL teams had a representative present — there were 28 in Lincoln last year and 23 the year before that. One of the most notable individual moments was receiver Oliver Martin recording a broad jump of 11 feet, 2 inches to the delight of nearby Huskers. The distance ties for fourth among all NFL combine participants earlier this month.
Rhule watched the drills play out before crossing over the skywalk back to North Stadium. Spring practice No. 3 and beyond won’t prepare for itself as Nebraska grinds for the right to have a larger batch of pro prospects a year from now.
“Back to work,” Rhule said with a smile. “Lots to do.”