Matt Rhule enters his fourth season on the WCU staff, but will entering his first as offensive line coach and run game coordinator, while still coordinating the special teams. Prior to the 2003 season, Rhule was promoted to assistant head coach, taking on added administrative duties and serving as a football office representative at functions in Coach Briggs' absence.
During Rhule's first three seasons at Western, he directed the linebacking corps, who set the tone for the Cats' defense becoming one of the top-rated units in the nation. As WCU's defense set a school record by ranking 12th nationally in total defense, it was Rhule's linebackers (Travis Hill, Shelton Gaffney, James Conklin, Lamar Barnes and Jada Sullivan) which led the way, taking the top five spots on the team's tackles list. Hill, a true freshman who led WCU in tackles, made a name for himself twice, earning Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors twice. In his first collegiate game, Hill became the first freshman to earn either SoCon Offensive or Defensive Player of the Week honors since 1998 as he intercepted two passes and returned them both for touchdowns, tying an NCAA I-AA record. He finished the game with nine tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery which would also land him National Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors. Later in the year, with captain Lamar Barnes sidelined with an injury, Hill took advantage of his first collegiate start at Elon to tally 12 tackles and earn SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors.
In addition to his linebackes excelling, the Catamount special teams had a good year in 2004. Not only did Tim Mayse led the SoCon in punting, but Western ranked 25th in the nation in punt return defense, allowing just 6.61 yards per return. On the other side, Francis Brown ranked third in the SoCon in punt returns (9.4 avg.) and returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown at Gardner-Webb, the second-longest punt return in WCU history. When Rhule arrived in Cullowhee, he helped an already good linebacker, Rod Dunlap, move to the next level as he earned consensus All-Southern Conference honors in 2002 and 2003. Dunlap led the team in tackles both seasons and ranked among the SoCon top 10 in stops, tackles for losses and fumble recoveries for a second consecutive year. Dunlap finished 2003 with 20 TFLs and, after getting just seven TFLs prior to Rhule's arrival, Dunlap ended his career with 45 to finish fourth on the WCU all-time list.
Also, four of Western's top six tacklers in 2003 were linebackers, including Dunlap, Barnes, Sullivan and Conklin. The effort of those four, adding a combined for 37 TFLs, played a key role in WCU leading the SoCon in rushing defense for the first time ever.
The 2003 season was also a big year for the WCU special teams. Western ranked fourth in the nation in net punting as Stanton Horne ranked 11th nationally with a 41.95 yards per punt average. Also, the Cats ranked second in the SoCon in kickoff coverage and third in kick returns. Both Xavier Godard and T. Alford ranked among the nation's top 65 in kick returns.
Rhule came to Western after a season as assistant defensive line coach at UCLA. The 2001 Bruins led the Pac-10 in total defense, allowing 320.6 yards of total offense per game, and passing efficiency defense (102.1 rating). Also, that defensive line featured five All-Pac-10 performers, including the Pac-10's 2001 Morrison Trophy winner, which goes to the league's outstanding defensive lineman, Kenyon Coleman.
Prior to his stint at UCLA, Rhule was a defensive line coach at Buffalo for the 1999 and 2000 seasons. In 2000, the Bull's sack total went up from 12 to 27 over the previous year and the school won it's first NCAA IA game in 31 years. Rhule began his coaching career as an assistant at Albright College, working with current WCU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins for the 1998 season.
Rhule is a 1997 Penn State graduate, receiving a B.A. in political science. He played four seasons (1993-97) with the Nittany Lions. During his sophomore campaign (1994), Penn State finished the season with a 12-0 record and was both Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions. Rhule was a three-time Penn State Scholar Athlete and earned Academic All-Big 10 honors in 1997. Upon his graduation, he spent the spring of 1998 as a volunteer assistant coach at Penn State. Among his duties included demonstrating drills and techniques on an linebacker instructional video for defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, whose coaching led Penn State to earn the reputation as "Linebacker U" for its tradition of excellence at the position.
Rhule completed his Master's degree from Buffalo in educational psychology in 2003. He is married to the former Julie Nibert and the couple had their first child, son Bryant, this past November.