Unlike Deion Sanders, Nebraska coach Matt Rhule has been prolific in off-campus recruiting

Since his hiring as Nebraska’s head football coach in late November 2022, Matt Rhule has visited 108 high schools in several states and has made 486 off-campus contacts with potential recruits, including 123 this past December and January, according to records obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

This is how he builds a program. He hits the road and barnstorms for recruiting prospects every December and January.

“I’ll be honest with you: It’s the only way I know,” Rhule told USA TODAY Sports in an interview. “It’s the way I was raised. They pay me to recruit, you know, so I’m gonna go do it.”

By contrast, Colorado head coach Deion Sanders has made zero off-campus recruiting trips and hasn’t visited any recruits away from Boulder since his hiring there in early December 2022. USA TODAY Sports reported on this in March, triggering discussions on social media and talk shows about whether Sanders was failing to maximize Colorado’s chances for success – or whether off-campus recruiting is as necessary today as before, especially in the transfer portal era with a coach as famous as Sanders.

It's debatable. Every coach has a different style, but in this case, there are two extremes between two rival programs under two coaches who got hired at about the same time. Which is right?

It depends.

Nebraska football coach Matt Rhule hits the road and barnstorms for recruiting prospects every December and January.
Nebraska football coach Matt Rhule hits the road and barnstorms for recruiting prospects every December and January.

What are the recruiting results so far?

Colorado upgraded its roster and beat Nebraska last year, 36-14, after each coach signed his first recruiting class. Colorado finished 4-8 last year while Nebraska finished 5-7. This year, Colorado ranks No. 22 in the overall recruiting rankings, including transfer recruits − one spot ahead of No. 23 Nebraska, according to 247Sports.

But recruiting results usually take years to play out in college, leaving such a stark contrast to raise more questions than it answers in the meantime.

USA TODAY Sports asked Rhule for his reaction to the fact that Sanders hasn’t made a single off-campus recruiting visit since his hiring in Boulder.

“I just don’t want to touch that,” Rhule said.

He declined to offer his assessment of Sanders’ approach but agreed to go into detail about why he believes off-campus recruiting has been important for his program.

“I just think there’s a bigger thing we’re trying to get done, and that’s building a sustainable recruiting model where year after year, you have connections in the building and you’re one of the first teams people call,” Rhule said. “To do that you have to be out, and you have to be present.”

Rhule’s 486 off-campus contacts explained

Rhule’s program-building strategy differs from Sanders’ in another big respect: He is building mostly with high school players. His 2024 recruiting class includes 31 high school recruits and only six transfers, according to 247Sports.

Taking an opposite approach, Colorado has been building with transfer players. Its 2024 class has 25 transfers and only 10 high school recruits.

That partly explains why Rhule is investing so heavily in high school visits. But there’s more to it than that as both programs prepare to stage their annual intrasquad spring games April 27.

USA TODAY Sports requested recruiting records from several Power Five college programs and still found a range of approaches to recruiting on the road, whether they are heavy on high schools or not.

Rhule appeared as an outlier among them, with one caveat. Nebraska said it measured off-campus recruiting contacts differently after an NCAA rule change on Aug. 1, 2023. Before the rule change, Nebraska said it counted any senior high school player in its recruiting database at a school visited by Rhule as an off-campus contact even if Rhule was there only to talk to one player.

Therefore, a high percentage of those 486 reported contacts came before the change. Even so, Rhule had 123 off-campus contacts after the change, all in December 2023 and January 2024.

‘Showing my face’

Rhule, 49, sees off-campus recruiting as building relationships with high school coaches and players that can pay dividends beyond the current recruiting cycle.

“That’s a really important thing to me − to make sure that I showed people the respect of coming to their homes, coming their schools, seeing the people that matter to them,” Rhule said. “Then when they come on campus − letting them see the people that are important to me so that we form more of a bond than just a recruiting relationship.”

One of those high schools was Elkhorn South High School in Omaha, home of defensive line prospect Ashton Murphy. Rhule visited Murphy. Sanders, 56, did not visit him, but one of his assistant coaches last year, then-offensive line coach Bill O’Boyle, did visit Murphy, and Colorado was the first Power Five school to offer him a scholarship.

Murphy signed with home-state team instead.

“I do think it makes a difference,” Elkhorn South coach Guy Rosenberg said of off-campus visits from college head coaches. “People want to feel important, and they feel important when someone makes a specific effort in a busy time period to come and visit them.”

That’s the conventional wisdom

Virtually all recruits visit college campuses before signing with a team. But if one coach is also visiting recruits in their homes or high schools while another coach is not, that can make a difference in competitive recruiting.

LSU’s Brian Kelly had 257 off-campus recruiting contacts since Dec. 1, 2022, including at least 46 in-home visits with recruits, according to records obtained by USA TODAY Sports. Former Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh had 145 off-campus contacts during the same period, compared to 128 for Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian and 55 for former UCLA coach Chip Kelly, including seven home visits.

At Georgia, coach Kirby Smart has used a helicopter to drive his own prolific amount of off-campus visits, the number of which was not immediately available. Before he retired recently, off-campus visits from legendary Alabama coach Nick Saban had become popular moments to photograph for recruits.

Times are changing, however

Online Zoom calls have replaced in-person meetings in the workplace. Money and instant gratification also are a bigger part of recruiting than they were just a few years ago. Since 2021, transfers have been allowed to switch schools more freely, while endorsement deals for college athletes also were allowed under NCAA rules for the first time.

It's one reason Sanders uses social media and YouTube channels to market his program far more than most.

But Rhule doesn’t think these developments eliminate the need for recruiting on the road.

“Maybe it matters less. I don’t know,” Rhule said. “For me, you’re trying to promote your brand. You’re trying to build connections. You’re trying to talk to the guidance counselor and principal.”

Transfer recruits and visits

Besides Sanders, virtually all major college head coaches have an on-and-off campus approach to recruiting. They bring recruits to campus to show them their programs and facilities while also visiting recruits at their high schools or homes. Sanders only does on-campus recruiting and has his reasons for it, which he said include saving the university travel expenses and mostly recruiting transfer players instead of high school recruits.

“We target mostly guys that’s in the (transfer) portal,” Sanders said in response to the initial USA TODAY story on his zero off-campus visits. “When do you make visits to portal guys’ homes? Anybody do that? Do they do that? Anybody? Have you guys heard of that?”

He has a point. It happens, just not anywhere near as often as with high school recruits. Transfer players previously went through the full recruiting process in high school and might not want or need another parade of home visits from college coaches. But sometimes they do select their transfer destination based on coaches who visited them as high school recruits.

Rhule and transfer recruits

For example, Ohio State coaches went to see Alabama safety Caleb Downs this year before he transferred to Ohio State, among other examples. Downs already knew the Ohio State coaches from his high school recruitment.

Likewise, Rhule previously served as head coach at Baylor, where he recruited offensive lineman Micah Mazzccua and wide receiver Josh Fleeks. Both transferred to Nebraska after Rhule was hired there.

“Sometimes part of this concept of going out and knowing all the high school coaches and seeing people, sometimes those are the student-athletes who eventually transfer back to you,” Rhule said. “To me these things aren’t always linear. They’re not always that exact recruiting class.”

Rhule said he hasn’t visited many transfer recruits off-campus but that his limited recruiting of transfers has benefited from his previous visits to see high school players.

“The portal is so fast,” Rhule said. “Normally you’re flying them in. A lot of them I had previous connections to. We took Micah Mazzccua this year, and we visited him out of high school.”

Sanders to visit Rhule in September

Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, might be the only coach in America who can rely on his fame alone as a magnet to attract recruits to campus and who doesn’t necessarily “need” to go on the road to make an impression with recruits and their families.

“I really, truly in all my heart believe that parents don’t want me at (their) house,” Sanders said in an unsolicited speech about the topic March 20. “They want to come see my house. They want to see how I live, how I get down. They want to see what I’ve got going on, what God has done in my life.”

It’s not clear if Sanders has literally brought recruits to his home or just the Boulder campus.

Rhule said he wants his recruits to visit both.

“As many people as possible that are coming to play for us, I want to be in their home,” Rhule said. “When they come on a visit here, I want them to come see our campus. I also want them to come to our home and meet my wife and meet my kids.”

Even Sanders himself will pay a different sort of visit to Rhule later this year. Nebraska hosts Colorado in Lincoln Sept. 7.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nebraska coach has visited 108 high schools, unlike Deion Sanders