TEMPE, Ariz. — For the past couple seasons, Arizona State cornerback Robert Nelson was typically portrayed as the team’s most athletic player and perhaps its fastest. It always sounded more a story of potential, though; it did not highlight his performance as a defensive back.
As ASU makes a push for a Pac-12 South title, Nelson is finally matching his athleticism with performance that’s among the best the Sun Devils have seen from a cornerback in years.
“He’s got a great heart, great spirit, and to see him grow like that … he’s playing phenomenal,” coach Todd Graham said. “He’s a guy that really has matured light years. I’m really proud of him.”
Nelson is the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the week after his performance in ASU’s win over Oregon State last Saturday. The senior accounted for three turnovers, a fumble recovery and two interceptions, including one he returned 23 yards for a touchdown that put the Sun Devils ahead 30-10 in the fourth quarter.
Graham called Nelson the MVP of the game and gave him the honor of taking a sledgehammer to the Oregon State “rock” in ASU’s postgame locker-room ceremony.
“I think that was probably Robert’s best game. He’s been clutch for us. When he sees the ball come out of the quarterback’s hand, he is really gifted. It’s our job to put him in positions to do that.”
ASU’s coaches have apparently done that job well, as Nelson has a team-best six interceptions this season, including five over ASU’s last five games. His six picks are the most by a Sun Devils cornerback since Eric Allen’s eight in 1987.
Early this season, that kind of defensive production didn’t seem particularly likely out of Nelson. He struggled early on adjusting to the starting role he took over after Keelan Johnson’s graduation. Things came to a head in ASU’s game against Notre Dame in Dallas, when Nelson got beat on multiple fades that proved costly in ASU’s 34-37 loss.
Nelson, it appeared, was the weak link in what was supposed to be a lockdown secondary.
But like the unit as a whole, Nelson recovered from the early struggles, and he says it’s in large part due to the encouragement of his fellow defensive backs.
“My team helped me get my confidence back,” Nelson said. “They just constantly let me know, ‘You’re the best corner in the nation, I know you can guard anybody, doesn’t matter their size.’ Those guys just putting that in my ear just gave me the confidence to improve every week.”
Nelson admits he had improvements to make from early in the season. Weight-room habits, physicality, technique, reading quarterbacks and receivers — all of it, Nelson says, had to get better.
Rust was perhaps part of the problem. Nelson played a limited role last season and had not been a starter since 2010, when he was still at Louisiana-Monroe. In fall camp this yea, Nelson spent a good deal of time working at free safety to create depth after freshman Marcus Ball got hurt, giving him less time at cornerback.
While outsiders were prepared to write Nelson off, coaches and teammates kept pushing him to be as good as they believed he could be.
“He had a little rough stretch at the beginning of the season, but you’ve got to just keep fighting, keep pushing on,” fellow starting cornerback Osahon Irabor said. “Me and (safety Alden) Darby always tell him, ‘Don’t ever let anyone take your confidence, just go out there like you’re the baddest man on the field.’ He’s playing like that.”
Nelson’s impact has been felt most the past two games. The game against Oregon State was the second straight in which he helped ice an ASU win. Against Utah in Salt Lake City the previous week, Nelson intercepted Travis Wilson with about two and a half minutes to play before Will Sutton intercepted Wilson on Utah’s last possession.
Graham praises Nelson for his eagerness to be coached, which may be what’s helped him improve most. Nelson seeks out coaching, Graham says, even if he doesn’t always make it easy.
“He’s a challenge six days a week, and I love having him on game day,” Graham said. “The other six days we go at it quite a bit, but I’m really proud of him.”
This is more like what Nelson pictured for himself when he decided to become a Sun Devil. It was after Louisiana-Monroe’s 2009 loss to ASU at Sun Devil Stadium that Nelson decided he wanted to play in Tempe again. While Nelson says many of his ULM teammates doubted he could play in the Pac-12, he made it happen.
But Nelson has not quite achieved all he imagined about playing at ASU.
“What I envisioned was going to the Rose Bowl and winning,” Nelson said.
This season is Nelson’s last chance to make that dream a reality. And this week’s game could put the Sun Devils one big step closer, as a win over No. 14 UCLA would clinch a Pac-12 South title and a spot in the conference championship game, where the winner moves on to the Rose Bowl.
Should ASU reach such heights this season, the secondary will have been a major reason. With Nelson, Irabor, Darby and Damarious Randall all playing well, the unit has limited ASU’s last three opponents to 93.6 fewer passing yards than they averaged entering the game. The defense as a whole has limited teams to an average of 128.3 fewer offensive yards.
As much as Nelson has improved on his owns, he won’t admit to much success without first crediting God, the defensive line, the linebackers and his teammates in the secondary. The latter group saw Nelson’s emergence coming, never wavering in its belief that his ability would catch up to his renowned athleticism.
“He’s just gaining confidence as a player,” Irabor said. “We just let him know, ‘Pick yourself up, get on to the next play and understand that you’re a great player and you’re going to have your moments.’ I think he’s realizing that, and you’re seeing it on the field.”