How the NFL Draft — and Super Bowl — can highlight improvement for Huskers
Nebraska football has been on a downward trend of players drafted to the NFL over the past 10 years. Can recruiting and development — plus stability — turn that tend around?
Super Bowl LVIII has come and gone. The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 25-22.
We’re not here to talk about the game though.
The last time Kansas City and San Francisco faced off in a Super Bowl (2020) was the first time in a long time that a former Nebraska football player wasn’t part of either roster. Counting practice squad members, the Huskers had a former player on a roster dating back to 1993 prior to that season.
This time, Nebraska did have a representative — 49ers linebacker Randy Gregory — in the matchup. He was traded to San Francisco from Dallas last October.
He wasn’t the only connection to Nebraska in Sunday’s matchup. There were 10 total connections, compiled by the Omaha World-Herald, which also included San Francisco defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks. He spent four seasons as a Husker before he was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2006.
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We’re also not here to recap the Nebraska-Super Bowl connection. That’s been done a number of times leading up to the actual game, but there is a point to be discussed within this: recruiting.
It’s not everything and we know that. Recruiting can only determine so much because the top of the top might not pan out while underrated players may outperform every expectation set for them. Take Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, for example. He was a 2-star recruit out of high school and was recruited for quarterback, defensive back, you name it. Now he’s one of the best to have played the tight end position in the NFL.
There’s also 49ers’ Brock Purdy, the 3-star quarterback who became Mr. Irrelevant after his time at Iowa State. Nick Saban allegedly called Purdy “below average” in a number of categories during his recruiting process.
Player ratings can only do so much though. It can’t predict the future, but recruiting top talent is still vital for any team. In Nebraska’s case, that 2020 Super Bowl highlighted some truths when it came to the turnover of coaches through the 2010s. During that time, the Huskers saw three different head coaches — Bo Pelini, Mike Riley and Scott Frost — which is going to affect recruiting no matter what you do. That much change is inevitably going to harm stability for any program.
It also highlighted the lack of stability Nebraska faced for so many years. When a team isn’t stable, recruiting inevitably takes a hit.
Development does too.
Those two things — recruiting and development — are the keys to success. That’s why coach Matt Rhule told Pat McAffee in December that Nebraska would like to be “90% high school recruiting and development.” Could the Huskers go after a key transfer portal player? Of course — and they will — but it’s not going to build the stability that Rhule wants on a roster if that’s the only way he approaches it.
How do we track that stability? There’s a number of ways, of course, and on-field success is going to be a primary one for Nebraska. One I’ll be watching is how many Huskers are drafted year over year, because it will tell us if Nebraska has both recruited and developed its players during their years in Lincoln.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Nebraska players drafted since 1993. I’m using that year since that was the start of the 26-year streak for the Huskers in the Super Bowl.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the most noticeable trend is the downward slope of Nebraska players drafted over the past 10 years. Also notable is that both players drafted from Nebraska in 2023 — edge Ochaun Mathis and wide receiver Trey Palmer — were transfers that spent only one season in Lincoln. While they’re considered Nebraska draftees, it’s hard to attribute too much development at Nebraska to each.
Rhule recently spoke at the Texas High School Coaches Association about rebuilding Nebraska. He broke it down into three parts:
The piece most relevant right now to this discussion on development is his perspective on the roster and how it needs to be addressed.
“How at Baylor can you ever compete with Texas and Oklahoma?” Rhule said. “It’s taking that wideout and saying, ‘Let’s go play linebacker.’ Every single day waking up and having someone on your staff that’s looking at the bottom half of your roster and saying, ‘Why isn’t he playing?’
“The best thing I do if there’s anything good I do football-wise — because I used to be a football coach and now I’m just a head coach, I don’t coach football anymore — is I run the scout team. I’m sitting there saying, ‘Why aren’t we playing him? Why aren’t we playing with him?’ Finding the guys on your roster and giving them an opportunity. Finding the guys and changing their positions. Finding the guys and giving them the vision.
“Young people, if they don’t have any hope, if they don’t feel they’re ever going to get on the field, it’s hard to be motivated every single day. When they recognize that, ‘Hey, I might not be playing now but I have a chance to play if I move to this position or if I put on these 10 pounds or if I do this,’ and you give them a plan, you have a chance.”
We’ve already seen a lot of this in action from Rhule so far. We saw the introduction of the gray jerseys last spring, which signifies a “two-way” player, as Rhule put it. That player may be a defensive back, but maybe wide receiver is where they should be playing. Nebraska will throw a gray jersey on them at practice and find out.
Rhule is also big on high school recruiting and development, as noted, and only uses the portal to fill necessary gaps. In a world of transfers, it’s a more unique approach to how many others are doing it.
We won’t know if this approach works for a couple of years but we’ll start to see signs on the field. A benchmark many Nebraska fans have — and rightfully so — is the six-win mark and a bowl game berth for the Huskers. That will highlight team improvement.
I would just argue that we need to keep an eye on the NFL Draft too, as it will be the piece to highlight individual player improvement. If Rhule’s approach pans out — as well as if he stays at Nebraska for some time — we should see stability take foot in multiple ways. If it does, we should also see more players drafted each year. And then by default, we should see more former Huskers playing in the Super Bowl.
It starts with recruiting — and Nebraska appears on the right path there with the 2024 class — but now it’s all about the development piece. Always easier said than done.
We’ll check back in from Super Bowl LXIII.
One last note:
This deserves its own discussion, but this newsletter was in an advanced stage by the time the Nebraska women’s basketball team defeated Iowa, 82-79, on Sunday. With that said, I couldn’t let this newsletter go without at least mentioning the gritty performance from coach Amy Williams and her team against the Hawkeyes.
And hey, even Rhule was there. He captured the crowd storming the court.