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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE– In the Virginia football program, Brenton Nelson’s rise to prominence became one of the most compelling stories of 2017. A former walk-on, Nelson earned a starting job in the secondary and ended the season as the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year.
He’s grown this year as a player, Nelson’s coaches say, even if his numbers don’t necessarily reflect it. As a redshirt freshman last season, the 5-11, 180-pound safety tied for the team lead with four interceptions. He has one this year.
In all, UVA (7-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) has 13 interceptions heading into its Coastal Division game with Georgia Tech (6-4, 4-3) in Atlanta on Saturday. Senior safety Juan Thornhill leads the Cavaliers with five; junior cornerback Bryce Hall and sophomore safety Joey Blount have two each; and Nelson, sophomore safety De’Vante Cross and sophomore linebackers Charles Snowden and Elliott Brown have one apiece.
“Juan keeps stealing everybody’s picks, but it’s fine,” said Hall, a junior who leads the nation in passes defended. “We’ll let him have it. It’s his last year, so we gotta send him out right.”
Nelson laughed when apprised of Hall’s comments.
“Juan is a ball hawk. He definitely takes people’s picks,” Nelson said.
Nelson, a native of Florida, spent most of his childhood in that state. Midway through the 2014-15 school year, he moved in with an aunt in the Washington, D.C., area and transferred from Warm Springs High, near Orlando, to DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md.
He played his senior season at DeMatha, which has a powerful football program, but injuries limited the interest Nelson received from colleges. He broke school records in the long jump and triple jump at DeMatha, though, and enrolled at Virginia without a scholarship in the summer of 2016, planning to compete in both football and track & field.
Not long after arriving at UVA, he suffered a hamstring injury, after which he decided to focus on football. Nelson practiced with the second-team defense in the spring of 2017 and earned a scholarship from head coach Bronco Mendenhall that August.
By the second game of the 2017 season, Nelson was in the starting lineup, and he’s been a fixture there ever since. He’s made 32 tackles and broken up five passes this season for the ACC’s second-ranked scoring defense (19.7 points per game).
“Where he’s developed the most,” co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said, “is just the understanding of the scheme and getting guys lined up and helping other guys make more plays. He hasn’t made the [number of] plays that he made last year, but he has made some good ones.”
Nelson’s most recent gem came Saturday against Liberty at Scott Stadium. Midway through the third quarter, with UVA leading 31-24, the Flames broke with convention and went for it on fourth-and-1 from their 14-yard line.
Quarterback Stephen Calvert took a shotgun snap and fired the ball to his top receiver, Antonio Gandy-Golden. Nelson broke up the pass, and three plays later Virginia scored to take a 38-24 lead.
That Nelson was even in the game impressed Mendenhall, who’s in his third season at UVA. Nelson had limped through the Cavaliers’ previous game, a 23-13 loss to Pittsburgh at Scott Stadium, and his availability for Liberty’s visit was uncertain.
Nelson wore a protective boot for much of last week. He didn’t practice until Thursday, and then only barely.
A year ago, Nelson needed extensive practice time in order to be ready to perform consistently in the games, Mendenhall said. Nelson is now a veteran, even if he has more than two seasons of eligibility remaining.
“I think the difference this year is he’s gained a lot of experience, and now he’s wiser for it,” Hall said. “Our relationship has just grown and our trust has been built, just over the time spent doing hard things and being in the situations we’ve been in.
“It’s so comforting to have somebody like him [in the secondary]. Now he knows a lot more of the game. You can trust that he’s going to do his job at a high level.”
Virginia played the second half of the Pitt game without Thornhill and the fourth quarter without Blount. Each suffered an injury that night. Thornhill returned to face Liberty, but Blount remained sidelined. That pushed Cross, who began the season at wide receiver, into the starting lineup at safety.
Poppinga praised Nelson’s grasp of the Cavaliers’ defensive scheme and his ability to help “other guys around him be successful, especially De’Vante in that last game. Without Brenton in the game, De’Vante, I think, is all over the place. And just having that guy out there, that experience, I think has been where we’ve needed him more than anything this year.”
Nelson, who lives with teammates Chuck Davis, Joe Reed and Jordan Mack, played alongside All-America safety Quin Blanding in 2017, when Thornhill was at cornerback.
“Quin definitely helped a lot, and he started what we now we now call ‘America’s Secondary,’ ” Nelson said, smiling. “Quin started that, and he still talks to us sometimes. Even now I think he’s our captain.”
Two regular-season games remain for UVA, which is assured of finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2011. After playing the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta, the ‘Hoos will take on Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Friday, Nov. 23, at 3:30 p.m. 
Virginia is second in the Coastal Division, behind Pitt (6-4, 5-1). The Panthers can clinch a berth in the ACC championship game by winning one of their final two regular-season games. For the Cavaliers, though, that doesn’t diminish the importance of their trips to Atlanta and Blacksburg.
UVA hasn’t won at Georgia Tech since 2008. UVA hasn’t won at Virginia Tech since 1998.
“These are both huge, huge games,” Nelson said. “Whether Pitt wins or loses, this is going to be a monumental year for UVA. Of course we want to win the championship, but if that doesn’t happen I’m still extremely proud of my team.”
Overall, Nelson said, he’s pleased with the secondary’s play this season.
“Our coaches put a lot of trust in us,” he said. “I wouldn’t say they’re more laidback – they still challenge us, they still coach us, and they still want us to be the best that we can be – but they let us play. They’re more comfortable in letting us figure out what’s working for us and what’s not.”
Media members who cover the ACC picked Virginia to finish last in the Coastal Division this season. Inside the McCue Center, though, there was self-belief and resolve.
“There really is a difference in how the old culture compares to the new culture, the new standard,” Nelson said. “You can literally see the change in culture happening.”
He’s changed, too. He’s been on scholarship for some 15 months and now ranks among the ACC’s better defensive backs. Still, Nelson hasn’t forgotten the obstacles he had to overcome to achieve this status.
“I definitely have flashbacks, and it humbles me,” he said. “I feel like it helps me keep going, because a lot of people haven’t really had much of a struggle.”