Rhule wants DC Tony White to stay a long time but knows head coaching job is in rising star's future

Thu, Apr 25, 2024

Rhule wants DC Tony White to stay a long time but knows head coaching job is in rising star's future

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska coach Matt Rhule was one of Tony White's biggest supporters when the defensive coordinator's name was connected to head coach openings beginning late last season.

Rhule has said he wants his assistants to advance in their careers, and he was happy to make calls on White's behalf.

White stayed put and Rhule selfishly was glad one of the most improved defenses in the country wouldn't have to start over when he begins his second season in Lincoln this fall.

"Fired up to have Tony back," Rhule said.

White's 3-3-5 base defense initially was met with some trepidation by fans and media doubting a three-man front could hold up against Big Ten offenses. What they didn't know was White's version would feature lots of moving parts and unleash creative blitz packages that allowed the Huskers to post their best defensive numbers since they began playing in the Big Ten in 2011.

With six full-time starters and six others with starting experience back, Nebraska's defense will come out of the spring looking to pick up where it left off. The Huskers went from 100th in total defense in 2022 to 11th last season, and their points-per-game average dropped from 27.6 to 18.3.

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Leading tacklers Isaac Gifford and Javin Wright and top sack men Jimari Butler and Nash Hutmacher are back.

The 45-year-old White, according to Butler, is the most important returning piece.

"That was big, I ain't gonna lie, that was big," Butler said. "He's a great coach. We knew the opportunities were going to come, but I'm very happy he stayed."

White's name was tied to head coach openings at Syracuse and San Diego State late last year and for the UCLA job in February. He also was a candidate for defensive coordinator at Southern California.

White was Syracuse's defensive coordinator for three years before Rhule hired him, he was on San Diego State's staff from 2009-17, and he was a three-year starting linebacker at UCLA from 1997-2000.

After the first wave of outside interest, and in the wake of Nebraska's remarkable defensive improvement, White was given a raise from $1 million to $1.6 million per year.

"I want everyone to have a chance to be a head coach," Rhule said. "Tony will have his chance."

Nebraska had its worst offense statistically in more than 50 years and probably will start a true freshman at quarterback, though Dylan Raiola was the No. 1 national recruit at quarterback in the 2024 cycle. For the Huskers to make a bowl for the first time since 2016, the defense just might have to match or exceed last season's performance.

"We want to be the No. 1 defense in the country," White said. "But, you know, all that is words until guys adopt it and they live it every day."

There were humbling moments for the defense this spring. White said Rhule laid into him about defensive breakdowns in the first spring scrimmage, and Rhule told reporters this week that the offense dominated the second.

That's not necessarily a red flag. Some top players don't participate or get limited snaps in scrimmages. But White said the criticism should remind his charges to never take off a play.

"The best defenses in the country, they have certain habits," White said. "They run to the ball, they're physical, they don't give a crap and they play with ultimate confidence."

White said strength and conditioning coach Corey Campbell, coordinator of football sports science Mitch Cholewinski and director of football nutrition Kristin Coggin have done their parts to get the players ready in the offseason and that hours of meetings and film sessions should have them knowing what to do on the field.

His message to his charges: "Bro, go out there and play. No hestitation, no fear. Go play and then we'll correct (mistakes) later. That's the next step, to make sure every guy believes they are monsters out there."


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ERIC OLSON Olson is an Associated Press sports writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He covers Nebraska, Creighton, the Big Ten and national college sports issues. twitter mailto "
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