MSU’s competition between Russo, Thorne just getting started

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
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Anthony Russo went through plenty of change during his five seasons at Temple.

Now he’s ready for a new adjustment – not just a new coach, but an entirely new school.

Russo is at Michigan State now, competing to be the Spartans’ starting quarterback as they prepare for coach Mel Tucker‘s second season in charge. Michigan State still has a holdover with some experience in Payton Thorne, but Russo’s arrival has created some real intrigue – and he did not sound too concerned about his ability to hit the ground running.

“I definitely have been in a few different systems, which I think definitely has worked to my advantage a little bit,” Russo said earlier this month. “I don’t think there’s many pass concepts and run plays and different things that I haven’t seen at this point – being in, this is my fourth offense now in five and a half years.”

Michigan State went 2-5 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Rocky Lombardi started six of those games at quarterback, but he’s at Northern Illinois now. The Spartans brought in Russo as a graduate transfer after he felt he needed a change from Temple.

“I didn’t feel that I was progressing both on and off the field as a quarterback,” Russo said.

Matt Rhule was Temple’s coach when Russo redshirted there in 2016. Since then, Geoff Collins and Rod Carey have spent time coaching the Owls. Russo started 26 games at Temple and is third on the career list there in yards passing, touchdown passes and completions.

He has less time to leave his mark at Michigan State, but he made it clear his new program has a lot to offer him.

“Pro-style pass concepts, pro-style run game – everything that I’ve kind of been looking for in an offense,” Russo said. “I knew, with one year of eligibility left and my goal to play in the NFL, that in order to increase my chances of doing that, I had to put myself in an opportunity that I was going to be in an offense that was similar to the next level.”

Thorne was the only other quarterback to start a game for Michigan State last season besides Lombardi. While Russo brings experience, Thorne – who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall – has more eligibility remaining. He threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns in a December loss to Penn State. That yardage total was a school record for a freshman and for a quarterback in his first start.

Now Lombardi is no longer with the Spartans, but Russo has arrived to challenge Thorne.

“I think that the competition brings out the best in a lot of guys, and you got a decision to make when a guy’s coming in like that in how you’re going to respond to it,” Thorne said. “I think that you got to respond to it in a certain way, and you just got to put your head down and work.”

Michigan State’s spring game is Saturday, although it is expected to be more like a practice with drills and scrimmage periods. A limited number of spectators are allowed.

The fans probably shouldn’t spend too much time overanalyzing the quarterbacks. Tucker sounds like he’s willing to be very patient before expecting more clarity on that situation.

“They’re just competing and working to get better. It hasn’t shaken itself out yet,” Tucker said. “It’s really too early for that to happen. I really like the progress that they’ve made, they’re working really hard and guys are getting better.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.