Rhule has always been adaptable at QB
Nebraska's QB situations looks drastically different than when Matt Rhule was hired, but that was often the case at his previous stops.
We’re happy to welcome Brady Oltmans, our former colleague, for this guest post on Nebraska’s quarterbacks. Brady operates False Nine, a passionate and well-written Substack devoted to coverage of women’s soccer. With the NCAA Tournament field set—and it includes Nebraska—now is a great time to subscribe. - BV
Nebraska used to have an issue with its offense. Now it’s cost them multiple games. At 5-4 going into the final three games of the season with one of the country’s top defenses, the Huskers’ offense is a liability.
It’s not difficult to diagnose the issue. Nebraska’s rushing offense leads the Big Ten with 185.4 yards per game. More impressively, the Huskers have done that with two of their top running backs out for the season. They’ve maintained a consistent running output with Anthony Grant (who used to be on the outside of the equation because of ball security issues), Emmett Johnson (who couldn’t stay healthy enough to crack the lineup previously), Josh Fleeks (who started the year at receiver) and whoever is playing quarterback. Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield has repeatedly said the offense needs to be able to run and throw at high levels. The run game is doing enough. The passing offense, as head coach Matt Rhule said following Saturday’s loss to Michigan State, hasn’t been good enough.
Heinrich Haarberg emerged as the starting quarterback as Jeff Sims battled through injury. He’s cemented his status because he’s been less likely to turn the ball over. While Haarberg’s running abilities provide the offense another weapon (477 yards and five touchdowns on the ground so far), his arm is inconsistent. He finished 14-of-24 for 158 yards and two touchdowns against Northern Illinois in his first start. A smattering of those completions went behind receivers or went to wrong reads. He got away with them then but they came back to haunt him against Michigan State.
He threw three interceptions (one negated by a defensive hold), each on throws to either the wrong spot or high tosses. Two of the 14 innocent incompletions against the Spartans occurred when he overthrew 6-foot-6 tight end Thomas Fidone II. All that isn’t to blame Haarberg entirely. Sims also threw four interceptions in the first two games. Those, and some of his incompletions, came on either errant throws or simply bad reads. Both have also fumbled attempted handoffs and dropped shotgun snaps from the center. Nebraska is the nation’s worst in turnovers lost with 10 interceptions and 12 fumbles—which could be worse because the Huskers have fumbled 26 times.
Exhales deepen with each mistake because both Haarberg and Sims have thrown some beautiful passes.
Sims’ only passing touchdown thus far came on the trick play against Minnesota. While Alex Bullock stood wide open in the end zone, Sims turned his body and threw it 44 yards in the air to Bullock’s breadbasket. Haarberg’s touchdown toss to Malachi Coleman against Northwestern sailed 57 yards in the air on a dime to Coleman. A similar option touchdown pass went to wide open Jaylen Lloyd, which Haarberg again heaved over 50 yards to Lloyd in stride.
Now, all three of those passes have other similarities. The trick play against Minnesota, which involved Sims picking the ball off the bounce, was an homage to a play called by Tom Osborne over 25 years ago.
The option passes came from Osborne, who told Rhule they needed to show that pass look to keep defenses honest and contributing to successes in the run game. Nine games into the season and three of Nebraska’s eight passing touchdowns are directly traced back to the Hall of Fame coach. Nebraska’s passing offense is No. 126 out of 133 teams this season with 131.9 yards per game. The only teams worse are the three service academies and Iowa. Is this a byproduct of Rhule’s first-year rebuild? Let’s break it down.
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In Rhule’s first season at Temple, he started Connor Reilly at quarterback. Reilly was a scout team quarterback who also played baseball the winter Rhule arrived but emerged the No. 1 quarterback in the 2013 opener against Notre Dame. Reilly went 23-of-46 in that game for 228 yards, no scores or picks.
He went 20-for-38 the next week against Houston with two picks in another loss. Reilly hurt his knee, opening the door for Clinton Granger, who struggled in a loss to Fordham. PJ Walker then became Rhule’s starter at Temple. Walker, the most mobile of those quarterbacks, completed 60.8% of his passes for 2,084 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He struggled in his sophomore year (2,317 yards, 13 TDs, 15 INTs) before emerging in his final two seasons (combined 6,277 yards, 41 TDs, 21 INTs). Advanced statistics from CollegeFootballData.com show Walker’s pass efficiency exploded during those final two seasons, especially after his 75th snap. After that point his predicted points added stayed over 0.0. This was also an offense helmed by current Nebraska coordinator Marcus Satterfield.
Rhule arrived at Baylor and eventually named transfer Anu Soloman the team’s starting quarterback. He threw for nearly 8,000 yards with 49 touchdowns and 28 interceptions at Arizona before going to Baylor.
He played well but a concussion in the team’s second game ended his season, and his career. Zach Smith stepped in right away and he threw for 1,471 yards with eight touchdowns and interceptions. The offense didn’t find its rhythm until freshman Charlie Brewer (roommate of one Garret McGuire) became the starter. Brewer finished co-Big 12 Freshman of the Year by throwing for over 1,500 yards with 11 TDs and four INTs. He threw for over 3,000 yards his next two seasons, including 3,161 yards with 21 TDs and seven interceptions in Rhule’s final season at Baylor. Brewer is second in school history in passing yards, completion percentage and is the second to ever go over 10,000 all-purpose yards. Rhule left for the NFL and Brewer didn’t replicate his successes in another year at Baylor, at Utah or at Liberty.
This is the time it’s important to note Satterfield wasn’t the offensive coordinator then. Instead of joining Rhule at Baylor initially, he coached at Tennessee Tech. He eventually coached tight ends in Waco before making the leap to the NFL. Satterfield comes to Nebraska via two years at South Carolina.
Famously, his first quarterback at South Carolina was Zeb Noland, who came to the team that year as a graduate assistant. Noland previously played at Iowa State and North Dakota State. A hand injury sidelined him and allowed Luke Doty, who was previously sidelined, to become the starter after two games. Doty started four games until a season-ending injury. Jason Brown also stepped in to throw for 721 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions. South Carolina ended that season No. 80 in team average pass rating.
Of course, that was without an established No. 1 quarterback. So entered one of the most acclaimed quarterback prospects in Spencer Rattler. He completed 66.2% of his passes for 3,026 yards with 18 TDs and 12 INTs last year. Through nine games this year, Rattler has completed 69.7% of his passes for 2,516 yards with 14 TDs and six INTs. South Carolina, as an offense, committed 27 turnovers last season under Satterfield, which is a good place to bring up the transfer market.
If the Nebraska coaching staff decides Sims, Haarberg or Chubba Purdy aren’t viable options to start at quarterback in 2024—when the strength of schedule dramatically increases by not playing in the doldrum Big Ten West—coaches could look for a high-level transfer. Rhule and Satterfield essentially did that with Sims. But, as Rhule previously said during the spring season, recruits and their families ask about how coaches approach the portal. While it’s ultimately the coaching staff’s responsibility to assemble the best team and pursuing transfers if they’re the right fit, it’s not a no-lose scenario.
Nebraska’s 2024 recruiting class includes Elite 11 homegrown quarterback Daniel Kaelin. The Bellevue West senior flipped from Missouri, which looks like a promising program to commit to now, to the Huskers. He threw for over 6,000 yards with 58 TDs and 12 INTs in his high school career.
The Michigan State loss on Saturday reminded fans and media alike that quarterback play hasn’t been great for the Huskers this year. Sometimes they just got away with it and did enough to win. Nebraska is further along in the Rhule rebuild than his previous projects while juggling quarterbacks like he has everywhere else. It’s an issue that followed him to NFL, where the Panthers started five different quarterbacks in Rhule’s time as head coach (including P.J. Walker).
But in college, once Rhule found a successful starter, he stuck with them, and they developed over multiple seasons. It led to Walker’s career as an NFL quarterback and helped Brewer become one of the top transfer quarterbacks on two occasions. Each career didn’t come without initial struggles. Which is where Nebraska finds itself now, struggling to consistently make the right throws and hold onto the ball.