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Five key questions for Nebraska football

How good will Nebraska be next season? Matt Rhule gets the question all the time.

The process-driven Husker coach wouldn’t have an answer in the spring if this was year four. He certainly doesn’t in his fourth month in Lincoln, as he  learns a roster of inherited players and transfers while assistants begin to align on scheme and terminology.

And that’s okay, he said. Even preferable. Not knowing is part of what makes spring his favorite time of year on the football calendar.

“We’re just going to try to earn the right to enjoy next season,” Rhule said. “We’re going to try to earn the right to go into a game week feeling like, hey, we have a chance to win. That only happens at 6 a.m. or at our spring practices.”

In the meantime, there are other questions. Key questions. Here are five as the Huskers prepare to don helmets and pads for the first time in the Rhule era.

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Nebraska is unofficially at 100 scholarship players, give or take a couple, and must be at the 85-man limit this fall. Factor in the likelihood that the Huskers will be active buyers when the next portal window opens and that means 15-20 more program departures are inevitable.

Players can enter the portal April 15-30. NU’s spring game is April 22. It will be a busy stretch of decisions shaped by how 15 morning practices go starting Monday.

Some players likely have already made up their minds — tight end Thomas Fidone said recently NU has had “a few quit” during winter conditioning — though none have made it public. Others will follow as position battles play out in front of a new coaching staff.

“I’m not the guy to come in and just kick a bunch of guys off the team,” Rhule said last month. “I want everyone to have an opportunity to go through the spring and live up to our standards on and off the field and see if this is for them.”

Which Huskers will be at different positions by late April?

Rhule has been hesitant to evaluate how various position groups rate until he sees them in pads with his own eyes. But hundreds of video hours of Nebraska games and workouts from last year have prompted one early conviction.

There are Huskers who could benefit from a position change.

NU has already moved Tommi Hill — a starting cornerback early in 2022 who shifted to receiver midseason — back to the secondary. Rhule won’t force anyone to switch but has a long list of successful examples from Temple and Baylor when minor or major transitions paid off for both individual and team.

“I’m looking at every kid not from a ‘Is he going to start for us? Is he going to play for us?’ (perspective) but more, ‘Where can he help us?’” Rhule said. “I think when you do that you experiment, you give guys a chance. Players know then that you care about them and you want them to get on the field and then they can control their own destiny.”

Potential candidates dot the roster. On the lines, certainly. Could, for example, high-profile transfer linebackers Chief Borders and MJ Sherman — former top edge rushing prospects — move back to the outside? One of the most explosive athletes on the team is quarterback Heinrich Haarberg — would the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder be open to finding the field elsewhere if he’s not high on the post-spring depth chart?

Lots of possibilities to consider depending on how practices go.

How big of an early impact will the transfers make?

If high school signees are like draft picks with long-term outlooks, portal adds are free agents brought in to address immediate needs.

Many assert themselves early. Last spring that included quarterback Casey Thompson, punter Brian Buschini, receiver Trey Palmer, running back Anthony Grant and corner Tommi Hill.

Who might fit that description in the coming weeks? Quarterback Jeff Sims (Georgia Tech) has a chance to headline the group, especially with Thompson (shoulder) likely limited. Rhule already asked Borders (Florida) to speak with reporters following an impressive winter.

Offensive lineman Ben Scott (Arizona State), receiver Billy Kemp (Virginia), defensive lineman Elijah Jeudy, receiver Josh Fleeks (Baylor) and tight end Arik Gilbert (Georgia) are others either with a track record of college production or at spots rife with opportunity.

Don’t forget about de facto transfers like receiver Zavier Betts and Fidone. Betts — the former Bellevue West star — sat out last season before rejoining Nebraska under Rhule. Fidone, once the top-rated tight end nationally out of Council Bluffs, is fully healthy coming off two ACL injuries. Nouri Nouili is another: The interior O-lineman was a projected starter last year before a failed drug test rendered him ineligible.

How much install will Nebraska get done before April 22?

The Year-One balance can be tricky to strike. Coaches need to see what their new players can do at full speed in full pads. They also need to begin downloading base schemes to rep.

Defense will be especially interesting with a defensive coordinator in Tony White who hasn’t worked with Rhule previously. Staffers will be collaborating and learning the finer coaching points of the 3-3-5 defense themselves while teaching it to the Huskers.

White said NU will be giving players as much as they can handle.

“You want to get stuff on film,” White said. “You want to see them in those positions to make plays. You want to see how their natural instincts take over. You want to throw as much at them as you can now and then taper back versus not having enough and trying to put it in in the fall.”

Nebraska has more of a head start on offense, where Rhule and coordinator Marcus Satterfield have a history and common pro-style vision. Something to watch will be how digestible the system is. Struggles of skill players — especially receivers — to learn the full playbook was a mark of the Scott Frost era, often leading NU to put players on the field who were more reliable but less explosive.

What will the spring effect be on the 2024 recruiting class?

Nebraska enters spring ball with one commit. That’s Roger Gradney, a four-star athlete from Texas who pledged last month.

He’ll have lots of company soon enough. The Huskers have issued roughly 100 new offers or re-offers to 2024 players since Rhule arrived. They’re preparing for a massive, tent-pole recruiting event during the March 24 weekend as top regional and national prospects — headlined by quarterback Dylan Raiola — converge on campus.

NU will certainly land new Huskers in the coming weeks or at least lay a foundation for future adds based on those dates and others.

“I want people to come watch us practice,” Rhule said. “I don’t know how you can commit to play for me without watching me at a mat drill or at a practice. Because I am who I am — I’m not changing on the field for anybody. … I think (recruits) would be smart to come watch us practice and figure out if this is the right place for them.”

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