Matt Rhule was a walk-on linebacker at Penn State once upon a time. Specifically, he was a college freshman when Nebraska and the Nittany Lions collided in the polls 28 years ago.
A former Penn State teammate, Brandon Noble, who coached the defensive line at Temple in 2013 for Rhule, once told NJ.com, “Matt always had a chip on his shoulder. I think you have to, to be a college football walk-on, especially at a big program. You’re always trying to prove people wrong.”
Noble details much more in there about traits in Rhule that helped make him such a success at previous college head coaching stops Temple and Baylor.
But we highlight that walk-on quote in this space for good reason. Because along with the scholarship and portal additions from this week, Nebraska also announced four walk-on commitments.
All the names had been reported upon, but now are officially in the fold: Running back Cole Ballard of Elkhorn South, linebacker Korver Demma of Gretna, tight end Cayden Echternach of Bellevue West and offensive lineman Grant Seagren of Oakland-Craig.
It came on a Wednesday when the new Nebraska football coach Rhule stressed the importance of always starting at home in building a program. It’s something he backed up on his first week on the job when he bounced the state, making local prospects a priority. And before his signing day press conference on Wednesday ended, he made sure to wish well those in-state who didn’t pick the Huskers, while also congratulating those signing at lower divisions than the FBS.
Whatever level you play on, “college football is awesome,” he told them, recalling one of his favorite years was coaching at Albright College in Reading, Pa.
Everyone can nod to that, although Husker fans can attest it’s especially awesome when you’re on top.
A couple weekends before signing day, Rhule had told the Husker fan base during halftime of a basketball game at Pinnacle Bank Arena that his goal was to build a Nebraska program that has young kids looking at the in-state team as being special.
“Knowing as a young kid, even in New York City, even in Pennsylvania, that that ‘N’ or that helmet was the very best of the very best of the very best,” Rhule said then. “And to every 9-year-old kid, 10-year-old kid, 11-year-old kid in the state of Nebraska and across the country, we will not rest until that means that to you.”
Besides the W’s, how do you make in-state recruiting pop like that?
“The best thing that I can do, our staff can do, is that every player that comes here and plays for us, leaves here and says, ‘You know what? That was awesome. I got developed,'” Rhule said. “They’ll go back to their towns and they’ll tell people, “You know what, what they’re saying is true and right.’ That’s the best resume we have. That’s our book of business. Every high school coach to say, ‘I want my guys to go there and play for that staff because they do things right.
One way to do things right?
“We’re not going to play games, ‘Hey, you’re good enough for a scholarship but we really don’t want to give (it) …’ We’re going to give scholarships when they’re good enough and we’re going to get them here and coach them.”
As time goes on, we’ll see more of what Rhule envisions for the ideal walk-on setup at Nebraska, but the four announced as commits on Wednesday get things started on that front.
Cole Ballard: The 6-0, 190-pound running back from Elkhorn South rushed for 1,491 yards and had 275 receiving yards this past season. He scored 38 touchdowns, including tying a state record with seven in one game. He was also a second-team all-stater as a junior when he rushed for 1,208 yards then.
Korver Demma: The 6-2, 230-pound linebacker had 132 tackles during his high school career, including 23 sacks and 44 tackles for loss. He also had six pass breakups, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two blocked punts. Besides helping Gretna compete in the state title game the past two years, he also wrestles and is involved in track and field.
Cayden Echternach: The 6-3, 250-pound tight end had 17 catches for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns this past year at Bellevue West after being in the Omaha Burke program his first three years. He had 190 yards receiving as a junior at Burke.
Grant Seagren: The 6-6, 250-pound offensive lineman played on both sides of the ball for Oakland-Craig as a tight end and defensive lineman. His team won the Class C-2 state title while he was there in 2019 and was twice district champions. Also competing in basketball and track and field, he had 186 yards receiving and four touchdowns as a senior, with 27 tackles and four TFLs on defense.
Walk-on or scholarship, Rhule spoke Wednesday of wanting young kids in the state to dream of playing for Nebraska. And, yes, obviously getting the Huskers back on a bigger stage is a lead ingredient in that.
“You grow up and your best memories are coming up here and watching big games,” Rhule said. “But the way you win is just kind of handling it day to day. We’ll get there. But it’s important to me that kids know it’s a possibility.”