Aug. 16, 2017
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In passing situations, Virginia’s defense usually lines up in a nickel package consisting of two linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs.
As training camp continues for the Cavaliers, who open the season Sept. 2 against William & Mary at Scott Stadium, familiar names abound in their starting nickel unit, among them Quin Blanding, Micah Kiser, Jordan Mack, Andrew Brown, Chris Peace, Juan Thornhill, Bryce Hall and Tim Harris.
And then there’s safety Brenton Nelson.
A 5-11, 180-pound redshirt freshman, Nelson came to UVA without fanfare as a walk-on last summer. His status has changed. He earned a scholarship this month and has been practicing with the first-team nickel group.
“Brent just kind of clawed and scratched his way up to the top,” said Hall, a sophomore cornerback. “He has ridiculous range, and I think that helps him be a phenomenal safety, because he’s able to cover sideline to sideline. And he just plays the ball [in the air] really well.”
A hamstring injury limited Nelson’s availability last fall, but when he was healthy he worked on the scout team, which at UVA is known as the victory team. His speed and athleticism impressed the Cavaliers’ offensive coaches.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall, also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, said he didn’t notice Nelson much last season, but “I was hearing reports on occasion that he was playing the ball really well and he looked fast.
“Then in spring practice he started to emerge, and [it continued in] this fall camp. So he’s played his way into a scholarship, and he’ll contribute in some manner this year.”
The Wahoos’ base defense consists of three linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs. In the 3-4, Nelson has been playing safety on the second team.
Nelson spent most of his childhood in his native Florida, then moved in with an aunt in the D.C. area midway through the 2014-15 academic year. He enrolled at DeMatha Catholic High School, a national powerhouse in several sports, including boys basketball and football.
Head football coach Elijah Brooks had no idea Nelson was coming to DeMatha, which is located in Hyattsville, Maryland.
“It kind of came as a shock,” Brooks said. “With most transfers, usually they contact you and make you aware that they’re coming to your school. I received a call from a recruiting service, and they said, `Hey, what’s this about this four-star corner coming from Florida to DeMatha?’ I said, `I have no clue what you’re talking about.’
“The whole thing was different. But he fit in and he was great for our program, and I just wish we had more time with him.”
At Winter Springs High School near Orlando, Nelson had his breakout game as a sophomore. In September 2013, in a 36-20 win over Hagerty, he rushed for 203 yards, returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, and intercepted two passes. He made second-team all-state in Florida’s Class 7A that season.
At one point, Nelson said this week, he had scholarship offers from 13 schools, including Kentucky, Louisville, and South Florida. But he waited “too long to commit,” Nelson said, and he saw those offers disappear.
“He was unfortunately a victim of circumstance,” Brooks said.
Injuries “kind of set him back [at DeMatha] and hurt his recruiting,” Brooks said, “but while he was here, he still did so many good things that I was just shocked that he didn’t get the looks that I thought he deserved.
“He picked up a couple offers here, but if you wait too long nowadays, schools fill up, and unfortunately he was left on the outside looking in.”
Nelson set school records in the long jump and triple jump at DeMatha, and for “a long time we thought he was going to go to Ole Miss for track,” Brooks said. “But football was something that was in his heart and he wanted to play it. I’m glad it’s working out for him.”
With an opportunity to compete in two sports at UVA — track & field and football — Nelson came to Charlottesville without a scholarship. Mario Wilson, an assistant track & field coach at Virginia, had recruited Nelson and was eager to work with him.
“He fits UVA as both student and athlete,” Wilson said. After arriving at the University and suffering a hamstring injury, however, Nelson decided to focus on football.
“Coach Wilson knew I wanted to play football, and he knew I was football first, so he wasn’t disappointed when I told him,” Nelson recalled. “He understood.”
Wilson said: “I’m grateful that the football staff here was willing to give him a chance, because I knew that was really where his heart lay.”
That Nelson, who plans to major in sociology, was an exceptional athlete was apparent immediately to the Cavaliers’ football coaches.
“We could see the speed and see the explosion,” Mendenhall said. “What we didn’t know was if he could just play the game. But he’s a solid tackler and he plays the ball well, and in the secondary those two skills are really important. How you tackle and how you play the football ultimately keeps points off the board.”
Nelson moved up to the second team at safety in the spring. He made more strides in June and July during training sessions organized by the players. Asked about a spectacular interception Nelson made inside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility early in training camp, Hall smiled.
“He was doing stuff like that all summer,” Hall said. “When we would do our player-run seven-on-sevens, he’d be making plays just like that, just coming across the field when he’s in center field, just going and getting the football from sideline to sideline. That range is just really next-level for him, and that helps us a lot as corners, because he’s able to cover a lot of field and help us out.”
Mendenhall has a history of awarding scholarships to deserving walk-ons — long-snapper Joe Spaziani received one on the eve of training camp this year — and Nelson was determined to join that group.
“I fought for it,” Nelson said. “I didn’t want to pay for school, so I made it to the point where they had to offer me.”
His reward came during a defensive meeting in the McCue Center. After talking to his defensive players, Mendenhall “looked down at his notepad,” Nelson said, “and he asked if I was in the room and told me to stand up front.”
Nelson did as instructed, and Mendenhall put his right arm around him before addressing the other defensive players. Nelson smiled as he recounted the story.
“He said, `Brenton Nelson came as a walk-on.’ Then he moved me over to his left side and he said, `Brenton Nelson, scholarship athlete.’ ”