Iowa State’s Xavier Hutchinson savors another college season

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AMES, Iowa — A broken thumb suffered last season may prove to be a blessing for the Iowa State and wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson.

The Jacksonville, Fla., native established himself as one of the Big 12’s premier pass catchers in 2020 and 2021, but his hopes of entering the NFL took a hit last December.

“I definitely explored it,” said Hutchinson, who has 147 career receptions for 1,758 yards and nine touchdowns. “There were just certain things I didn’t have in my control.”

Hutchinson underwent a surgical procedure after a piece of bone in his left thumb became detached, but he returned to play with a cast in the Cyclones’ 20-13 loss to Clemson in the Cheez-It Bowl.

His lone catch in that game was a diving, 34-yard grab – against Tigers’ cornerback Mario Goodrich, now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles – that brought Iowa State fans to their feet and set an example for Hutchinson’s younger teammates.

“I was actually kind of stunned a little bit,” Cyclone wideout Jaylin Noel said of Hutchinson’s catch, “but then again, it’s Xavier.”

This is not the first time Hutchinson’s dreams have been delayed or in doubt.

He enrolled at Blinn (Texas) College out of high school, but didn’t play in any of his first five games.

“I really didn’t think I was going to get any (scholarship) offers,” Hutchison said. “And I sure enough wasn’t going to get a Power Five school to look at me.

“But coach (Matt) Campbell said he saw something in me, just from practice.”

Campbell, entering his seventh season at Iowa State, took a chance of Hutchinson, who blossomed into a two-time, first-team, all-Big 12 selection.

This summer, he was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list, given annually to the nation’s top receiver.

“X is a unique player,” Campbell said. “He can do a lot of different things. The best thing is, getting the football in his hands. He is a dynamic playmaker.”

Hutchinson will be the most reliable playmaker for a Cyclone offense that is replacing quarterback Brock Purdy, who passed for 12,170 yards and 81 touchdowns the previous four years – helping Iowa State post a 31-20 record and appear in four bowl games.

Hunter Dekkers is the new starter, having completed 20 of 36 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns as a backup in 2021.

Hutchinson is already Dekkers’ favorite target.

“It’s the best feeling a quarterback could ask for,” Dekkers said. “He’s one of the best receivers in the country. He does everything really well.”

The Cyclones finished a disappointing 7-6 last season, after expectations for the program were elevated following a 9-3 record in 2020 and the school’s first-ever appearance in the Big 12 Championship game.

Hutchinson’s thumb is fully healed and he wants to help Iowa State make amends.

“I think Hunter is a good enough quarterback,” Hutchinson said. “I’m just there to make him look good, and him make me look good.”

Hutchinson’s former basketball-playing mother, Denise, and former track star father, Trent, both served in the Navy. The work ethic they instilled included regular 6 a.m. wakeup calls for Xavier.

“They knew what they wanted out of their son,” Hutchinson said.

Those expectations are being passed on to the rest of the Cyclones.

“He’s a guy who comes in and makes sure his leadership is felt,” Noel said of Hutchinson. “He makes sure the whole wide-receiver group is where they need to be and doing what they need to do.

“He as a teammate really elevates our whole team.”

Hutchinson, meanwhile, is embracing his role and his return to Iowa State.

“Most definitely it was a blessing in disguise,” he said of the injury. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

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.