It's competition that gets Oregon's Charles Nelson cooking – USA TODAY
EUGENE, Ore. — Surrounded by teammates and rivals, the game was on the line for Charles Nelson. He had to make quick decisions, but could not afford a misstep. He and his teammates knew the gameplan, and this was no time for an audible. The opposition, staring him in the face, was after the same thing: a win.
This was not on the Autzen Stadium turf at the University of Oregon, where Nelson is a rising sophomore and budding star on the football team.
This was five years ago in Mrs. Bigham’s culinary arts class back at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Fla.
June Bigham, now retired in Ormond Beach, Fla., oversaw six student kitchens that served as incubators for epicurean ideas and an unlikely breeding ground for competition, team challenges such as making the best dessert or the fastest table settings. The program was an ideal setting for Nelson, one of 30 students admitted to the program out of roughly 200 applicants his freshman year.
“It was so cute how competitive they were in whose tasted the best or looked the best,” Bigham said. “If we were cleaning out the refrigerators, it was, whose refrigerator was the cleanest?
“Perfection is what I saw from him. No matter what he did, it had to be done correctly.”
That is the Charles Nelson, just 15 months removed from Seabreeze High, that his Oregon coaches have come to know. While the conversation outside the Ducks team this offseason focused heavily on prospective transfer quarterback Vernon Adams, no player was discussed more in the coaches’ offices than Nelson. Or more fondly.
“Charles is one of the best football players I’ve been around in a long time,” said Scott Frost, Oregon’s offensive coordinator. “He can do almost anything you ask him to on the field.”
Much of the Nelson discussion among Oregon’s coaching staff centered on what they would ask him to do on the field this fall.
As a freshman in 2014, Nelson had been voted Oregon’s best special teams player after serving as the Ducks leading punt and kickoff returner and amassing a team-best 17 special teams tackles. He also emerged at wide receiver, making 23 catches for 327 yards and five touchdowns.
But with the final whistle of the College Football Playoff championship game in January, Oregon’s top three cornerbacks and starting strong safety had exhausted their eligibility.
And that got the staff thinking about Nelson. Nelson’s history in the sport and his ability to multitask gave the staff added reason to believe he was a candidate for a move to defense. After working out there almost exclusively during spring drills, he enters preseason practice Monday as a starter at cornerback.
“Anytime you take a great player, no matter where it is or what sport it is, and you move him, he’s still going to be a great player,” said John Neal, Oregon’s secondary coach. “And I knew that we’d have that because No. 1, he’s really smart. He cares, he wants to be special, and I already knew he could tackle. And then he had ball skills because he was a receiver.”
When Nelson played Pop Warner football for his father, also named Charles, the younger Nelson lined up at running back but also played on the offensive line. “If you are a running back, you have to know how blocking works, so we would put them on the line, too,” said his father, who builds combat simulators for the military.
And when the team needed a stop, it made sure Nelson was in at middle linebacker. “Wherever we needed him, we’d put him,” his father said. “Kicker, punter, long snap — it was funny to watch. He’d run off a 50-yard play, take his gloves off and line up for the snap.”
It continued in high school. Nelson saw time at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and safety, returned kicks and punts and was perhaps the leanest deep snapper in the country at 5-feet-8, 170 pounds. “He can pretty much do it all,” said Nelson’s high school coach, Marc Beach. “A couple times he was doing everything but selling hot dogs and tickets.”
That tendency also was true away from football. Nelson kept his grade point average in the mid- to high 3.0s and worked at an Ormond Beach Publix supermarket during the week. On Sundays, starting in middle school, he spent the day doing agility training with Seabreeze grad and three-year Georgia Tech starting cornerback Kenny Scott.
In Bigham’s classroom, Nelson helped wherever there was a need. “He would never demand to be the one cooking,” she said. “He did not mind if he was the one washing the dishes. He was part of a team in the kitchen.”
At Oregon, Nelson joined the Ducks’ national champion outdoor track team and competed all spring in the long jump, 100 meters and 4×100 relay. But at the same time, Nelson’s role on the football team was expanding again. The stance that Nelson belonged solely to the Ducks’ defense softened.
“We gave him to the defense, and I think he has a great chance of starting and being a special player over there for us,” Frost said following Oregon’s spring game. “But it’s great that he already knows the offense and we can put him back in there at a moment’s notice. He might be one of the guys that actually gets to play two ways.”
On July 31, Ducks coach Mark Helfrich declared Nelson a two-way player, telling USA TODAY Sports, “He’ll still be both. I think he’s just too talented, and he can do it.”
Nelson proved that to himself in the spring game, when he started on defense, making three tackles, and led all receivers with five receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns. “I was wondering if I was going to be worn out, tired or out of shape, if I was going to remember the plays,” said Nelson, whose offseason focus had been a crash course in the Ducks’ defensive scheme. “I ended up knowing them and executing them and doing everything right.”
Nelson remembered so well, he found himself directing teammates on where to line up. His playbook study had begun immediately after he signed with Oregon as a slot receiver in the winter of 2014, asking graduate assistant Nate Costa to send him Hudl footage of the Ducks’ offensive plays. Nelson credits that study for increasing the coaches’ willingness to try him at different positions, including outside receiver, which often is the domain of larger players.
“I feel like a guy my size has to be a little bit smarter in the game,” said Nelson, who is on the preseason watch list for the Paul Hornung Award, which recognizes college football’s most versatile player. “Knowledge is power in a game like this. So just being able to know more things, and even though you’re not as big and you can’t do as much, you can still be smarter, and that will make you better.
“Last year I was able to play any position because I knew what to do.”
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That holds true for this season, too, when Nelson will be given as much two-way responsibility has as he can physically handle.
“I remember Chip (Kelly) saying the only guys he would let do that are smart players,” Neal said. “If you put Charles at nose guard, in all honesty, yeah he’s going to get blocked sometimes, but sometimes they’re not going to be able to touch him and he’s going to make plays. If you put Charles at quarterback and said Charles, take the snap and figure it out, he’ll do something with the ball that will be fun and exciting.”
Seabreeze High, which produced players such as former Florida State stars Sebastian Janikowski and Xavier Lee as well as Atlanta Falcons kick returner Eric Weems in addition to Scott and Nelson, is a frequent waypoint for college football recruiters.
And because those recruiters were not allowed to enter core curriculum classes on their visits to the school, they often found their way to Bigham’s classroom, where some students also were members of the football team. The freshly made food, ready for sampling, also was a draw.
“Mack Brown, Jim Tressel, Bobby Bowden, I had them all in my academy,” Bigham said. “Jim Tressel came with his little sweater vest and hung out.”
Nelson was a good enough player that he eventually chose Oregon from among offers from Notre Dame, USC and West Virginia, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament his junior season limited recruiting interest, to an extent. He missed much of that football season as well as practice the following spring.
“I wouldn’t say he was under the radar, but he didn’t get as many offers as he would have if he didn’t have that (injury),” Frost said. “He was a little undersized, and a lot of teams down that way like big, fast guys and stay away from little, fast guys. But you don’t have to watch much of his tape to realize he’s a special football player.”
Beach, Nelson’s high school coach, said many schools stopped pursuing Nelson once they saw his height and weight. What they doubtfully knew was that he could clean and jerk 270 pounds and bench press 320. “Everybody worries about size and the vitals of what they look like, and who has offered,” Beach said. “Sometimes you try to tell coaches, but everyone’s got their own measuring stick.”
Joe Dailey’s measuring stick said Nelson was a must-get talent. But Dailey, the quarterbacks coach at Liberty University, felt that Nelson was so good, it might be difficult to get him to commit to the FCS-level Flames. So Dailey reached out to a fellow college assistant who had preceded him as an undergraduate and quarterback at Nebraska by seven years: Frost.
“He called me up and said, ‘Hey, you ought to get onto this kid,’ ” Frost said. “I texted him after, I forget what game we played — it might have been Oregon State — and said, ‘I owe you a present for getting us Charles Nelson.’ “
Little did the Ducks know what a year earlier, late in Nelson’s final high school season and before he had had any contact with the program, Beach had asked Nelson where he could see himself playing college football. Nelson’s reply: Oregon.
Beach fondly remembers first time Nelson stepped on the field as a ninth grader at Seabreeze. Nelson was playing safety when a wide receiver from Orlando’s Maynard Evans ran a stop and go pattern. Seabreeze’s cornerback bit on the play, and Evans’ quarterback threw the ball 40 yards toward a wide open receiver. “Charles was in the middle of the field and absolutely smoked a kid on the side and broke the pass up,” Beach said. “I just knew at that point, this kid’s got skills.”
He also had a remarkable competitive drive. He showed it during his Sunday afternoon agility training when others were taking a day of rest. He showed it at a one-day camp at the University of Florida, when he went into the weight room during a storm delay and asked Gators players if they would be willing to race him. Nelson showed it again during a team-building event at a bowling alley.
All the while, he was engaging in a long-running competition with his father that comprised of five events: Bench press, 40-yard dash, long jump, one-on-one basketball, and hitting a baseball. Said his father: “He can’t out-bench me, and he won’t out-hit me. I won’t let him beat me in basketball. I told him you’ll out-run and out-jump me. I gotta let him win something.”
It’s little wonder where Nelson gets his drive.
“I feel like (coaches) would like anybody that comes with the intensity, that wants to play, wants to learn, wants to go full speed all the time,” Nelson said. “I think they like those players the best.”
Just like he had as a high school freshman, Nelson recognized his opportunity to show that at an early stage. Oregon donned pads for the first time on the fourth day of preseason practice last summer, and Oregon’s special teams coach, Tom Osborne, planned to install Nelson as a safety who would hold his ground on kickoffs to protect against cutbacks from the returner. Nelson said he’d rather be a penetrator, the player who is the first one downfield to attack the return man.
“He thought I was joking and said, ‘Come one over here, I’ll give you a chance in the tube drill,’ ” Nelson said.
The tube drill consists of two rows of cones with a returner in the back, a blocker in front of him, and a penetrator who has to sprint and scrap his way past the blocker to the returner without going outside the cones. The drill is intended to show if a player is capable of making an open-field tackle under extreme duress.
Nelson beat the block and leveled the returner, who, as is often the case, was much larger than him.
The collision happened directly beside Helfrich, who was correcting a player from a previous rep when he heard a “Bam”. Neal called it “a big-time hit” that had the Ducks assistants looking at each other.
“It’s a hard tackle,” Frost said. “And most guys coming down there miss, particularly early on. His first one, he came down and just stone-dead dropped someone. And we all knew that we had a player who could do about anything we wanted.”
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