For new Nebraska football coach Matt Rhule, program rebuilds are old hat.
Rhule did it at Temple, where his Owls went from 2-10 to back-to-back 10-win seasons within four years. Then, at Baylor, he went from 1-11 in his first season to 11-3 two years later. Even though Rhule stubbed his toe in the NFL in a failed stint with Carolina, it’s clear he knows what he’s doing on the collegiate level. Especially when it comes to roster management and player development.
Which is why Arkansas football fans may raise an eyebrow when learning that Rhule thinks none other than Malik Hornsby could play a role in raising the Cornhuskers from the ashes.
Malik Hornsby Returns
Hornsby, the Razorbacks’ former backup quarterback, entered the transfer portal in late November after a tumultuous third season in Fayetteville.
His camp says he’s gotten interest from LSU, Missouri, UCLA, Texas A&M among others, but it’s Matt Rhule’s program that so far looks the most promising. Hornsby finished visiting the Cornhuskers this weekend and by all accounts enjoyed what he saw. Going into the visit, he had the Nebraska football program “very high on his list” of potential landing spots, according to his trainer, J.P. Tillman.
Some of that stems from familiarity with Rhule from his Texas high school days, when as a junior and senior he threw for a combined 52 touchdowns and just four interceptions while running for 30 more touchdowns. Hornsby was set to commit to Baylor when Rhule left for the the NFL in January 2020.
But the main reason Hornsby wants to make Lincoln, Neb. his new home, it appears, is because he believes Rhule, new offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield and the rest of the Cornhuskers staff can develop him in ways Hogs coach Sam Pittman, Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and the rest of that staff couldn’t.
“He wasn’t really developed as much as we would have liked for him to have gotten a chance to be developed at quarterback because of the offense and the system,” Tillman told the Omaha World-Herald. “We thought it would be a little different and a little better for him. The way we wanted to be nurtured and developed wasn’t that.”
Malik Hornsby and Future of Nebraska Football
It’s unclear in what ways the Arkansas coaches failed to nurture Hornsby and what, exactly, Rhule and Satterfield would do differently.
Hornsby played a career-high snaps at the QB position this past season and ended up completing 13 of 27 passes (48.1%) for 268 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions, while adding 172 yards on 31 carries.
The Omaha World-Herald’s Evan Bland mentions only his best game – a losing effort vs Mississippi State where he completed 8 of 17 passes for 234 yards and ran eight times for 114 more – but doesn’t get into the LSU debacle. Against the Tigers, Hornsby completed 4 of 9 passes for 24 yards and sputtered out a measly 2.7 rushing average thanks to 3 sacks including a backward, stumbling mess of a futile attempt to stay upright.
It’s safe to assume, however, that the Nebraska football staff is mostly keying in on what he did well in Starkville.
Tillman told Bland that the plan is for Hornsby to come “alongside” Nebraska’s 2022 starter, Casey Thompson, “who has one more season of eligibility but whose spring status is unknown coming off shoulder surgery. Hornsby has three years to play — in theory, he could redshirt next year and be full-go for 2024 and 2025.”
“Malik coming in there is more about the future of Nebraska,” Tillman added. “Casey (Thompson) has one more year. Right now we want to get on the field and get plays and start getting used to the offense.
Matt Rhule’s Challenge
While Bland doesn’t mention it in his article, it’s well known that one of Hornsby’s shortcomings is in-game accuracy. He throws a beautiful spiral and deep ball, but in college so far has missed his target way too often to merit starting quarterback status. “It’s frustrating to watch a kid not be able to execute an offense from the pocket, and we’re talking about just throwing the screen again accurately, throwing the quick game accurately, getting a good pre-snap read,” former Razorback quarterback Clint Stoerner said. “He struggles with some of the very, very simple parts of playing the quarterback position, and it’s frustrating to watch, especially when it’s my Razorbacks.”
If the problem were only passing mechanics, that would be one thing. The deeper issue is that he doesn’t escape as easily from pressure when the pocket is collapsing around him as you would assume given his world-class track speed.
Sure, if Hornsby has an open field and gets going in a straight line, he’s almost impossible to catch. But the game of football rarely provide those kinds of opportunities. The best running quarterbacks need to have the ability to turn on a dime and accelerate in a new direction.
“Track speed is not football speed,” sportscaster Mike Irwin said on “Ask Mike.” “What I’ve seen from him all along is a guy that doesn’t cut well. He doesn’t cut sharply,” he added, referring to how Hornsby’s cuts on take more time to execute because they appear curved instead of at sharp angles.
“He’s not the runner that everybody thought he was,” Irwin added. “Every once in a while, he’ll get into a situation where he’s got an open, straight line or a little bit of a curve, and he’ll take off and get you 10 or 15 yards, but he doesn’t cut that well.”
Revamping the mechanics of both running and throwing for a dual-threat quarterback will take a lot of work and patience, so for that reason Hornsby is also open to the possibility of going back to playing wide receiver in college (an experiment that didn’t go well at Arkansas).
“At the end of the day, Malik wants the opportunity to fail at quarterback before he has to play wide receiver full-time,” Tillman told Bland. “As long as he can be in the quarterback room and developing in practice, he doesn’t mind helping the team out at receiver if that’s what’s needed.”
Getting playing time at quarterback for the Cornhuskers just became that much harder when Jeff Sims, the dual-threat quarterback transfer from Georgia Tech, gave his pledge to the Nebraska football program this weekend. The team seems potentially loaded at the position with Casey Thompson, Logan Smothers, Chubba Purdy, Richard Torres and Heinrich Haarberg are all on scholarship and all could return in 2023.
Thompson, Nebraska’s starting quarterback in 2022, hasn’t yet announced whether he will come back for another season.
Parallels of Arkansas and Nebraska Football
Hornsby has every incentive to make it work at his next stop, given he now has a young son along with his family and wants to one day make a living with pro football.
At Arkansas, his work ethic was never in doubt. The fact he tried to make a go of it for three seasons, even coming back for a third season after entering the portal after 2021, shows he the kind of resolve that will serve him well in the future.
Many Arkansas football fans soured on him after his horrid outing against LSU, but it should be remembered wherever Hornsby ends up next, he won’t have to play against Harold Perkins every week. And that may just be what the former four-star recuit needs to finally excel.
Arriving in Fayetteville in 2020, Malik Hornsby wanted to play a bigger role in Razorback football’s return to glory after the dark years of Chad Morris and Bret Bielema. He didn’t become the starter he envisioned he would be, but he did have a hand in the Hogs making three straight bowl games after so much struggle.
Now, he may be on to another once-proud program that holds the loyalty of an entire state. Nebraska football has somehow suffered six consecutive losing seasons and in the last five seasons has lost to Troy State, Colorado (twice) and Georgia Southern, but its fan support hasn’t wavered. Officially, the program Nebraska football has had 389 consecutive sellouts, which is impressive no matter how much fudging has gone on. “
We’re going to find out something with Matt Rhule,” college football radio host Paul Finebaum recently said. “If Nebraska can’t get it right under him then they might as well just give up. They’re not going to be a contender ever again. I mean, this is the moment of truth for the University of Nebraska.”
Perhaps the same goes for Malik Horsnby, too. Godspeed to the fastest former Razorback of all in finding the nurturing he mysteriously never received at Arkansas.
Read more about Malik Hornsby’s time at Arkansas here: