If it wasn’t for Tilea Coleman taking a job with Under Armour, Nick Nelson would probably be a wide receiver at some small FCS school.
If Coleman hadn’t taken the job, her husband, Melvin, would have remained in Connecticut instead of moving to Maryland.
If she hadn’t taken the job, Melvin Coleman wouldn’t have moved to Maryland, hooked up with a former college teammate and become a coach at Suitland High School.
In other words, he wouldn’t have met Nelson, and the Wisconsin Badgers wouldn’t have their star cornerback.
Coleman, a Maryland native who played defensive back at Morgan State, arrived back in his home state and at Suitland just before Nelson’s senior year — as it turns out, the only year Coleman would coach at the high school. Nelson had been a receiver up until his final year, but suffered a broken thumb. Coleman suggested a move to the defensive side of things. Looking at his broken thumb, Nelson knew he didn’t have much choice.
“He happened to step in at the right time,” Nelson said. “I was just a straight athlete, just run. No technique. And he came in and told me take this step, put your hands here or keep your eyes there.”
Nelson was a good pupil — and still is. Whenever he’s back home, Nelson gets together with Coleman and watches film, hits the weight room and works on drills.
“He’s one of my favorites because when we train he doesn’t complain, he just does it,” said Coleman, who runs a sports training facility as well as coach defensive backs for Bowie State. “He’s always competing, and he always listens. How could not like a kid like that? Very coachable.”
Coleman liked what he saw. He just couldn’t believe others didn’t see it as well. Nelson had few offers, and just from smaller FCS schools. Even FCS Towson State, right in Suitland’s backyard, wasn’t interested. Coleman asked Nelson if he’d be willing to go to a Division 1 school out west — “look, it’s going to be way west,” Coleman chuckled as he recalled his conversation with the high school senior.
The prospect of playing Division 1 got Nelson’s attention. As it turned out, Coleman had a kindred spirit coaching at Hawaii — Daronte’ Jones. The two had been roommates in college and Jones is the godfather of Coleman’s son. They also have similar thoughts when it comes to cornerbacks.
Coleman called Jones and asked if he needed any cornerbacks — what college coach would say no? — and in a matter of days Jones looked at Nelson’s film, Nelson talked with then-head coach Norm Chow, Hawaii offered Nelson a scholarship and he accepted.
“(Jones) trusted his eyes because for whatever reason there wasn’t a lot of schools knocking on the door,” Coleman said.
Nelson’s parents needed a little convincing to send their son so far away, but Nelson’s father did some research and saw the schools Hawaii had lined up to play in the next couple of years — Washington, Colorado, Ohio State, Wisconsin — and he was all-in.
Nelson quickly got experience — and confidence. In his first collegiate game against Washington, speedy John Ross burned another cornerback on two deep passes, totaling 96 yards and a touchdown. Nelson was then switched from the nickel back to outside — and Ross didn’t have another reception.
In the 2015 season opener, he held Colorado’s Nelson Spruce — who would finish the year with 89 catches for 1,053 yards — to one of his worst games of the season and just 8.63 yards per reception. Nelson would break up three passes that game as well as the next week against defending national champion Ohio State and finish with 15 on the season.
Nelson followed Jones, who left Hawaii to become the defensive backs coach of Wisconsin, transferring to UW after his sophomore season, although Jones left after one year with the Badgers to coach in the NFL.
Despite the fact transfers, who have to sit out a year, spend their time with the scout team, his new position coach — Jim Leonhard, a veteran of the NFL — would occasionally put Nelson with the first team. Nelson would be challenged to not let anyone catch a pass on him, all to help prepare him for this season, when he’d be playing.
The work with Coleman, Jones, Leonhard and quality control assistant Ashton Youboty, who played at Ohio State and six years in the NFL, has made Nelson into a more well-rounded defensive player and one of the best at his position in the nation.
“They all taught me something different,” Nelson said.
Nelson has learned his lessons well. He is coming off back-to-back games with four passes broken up and leads the nation with 18 — which is just one off the Wisconsin school record set by Mike Echols in 2000.
“That record is gone,” Coleman says matter-of-factly.
“That’s huge, it means a lot,” said Nelson before, like any good cornerback, backpedaling. “But at the same time I try not to think of it a lot and focus on winning. When we win, that’s when the good things happen.”
Despite his success at Wisconsin this season, Nelson isn’t done learning. There are small things he knows he has to clean up to be more consistent. The former wide receiver also would like to get an interception, but said “I try not to force it. When you try to force it, that’s when bad things happen.”
He also cautions that the more he learns and corrects, well, the better he’ll become.
“You haven’t seen the best of me yet,” Nelson said. “I feel like every game I did some pretty good stuff but I left some stuff out on the field. Just small stuff. I’m still working towards that, too.”
The question isn’t necessarily how much better Nelson can get, but whether he’ll be progressing at Wisconsin or, like Jones, be moving onto the NFL.
A couple of weeks ago Coleman, who is undoubtedly one of Nelson’s biggest — if not the biggest — supporters, tweeted out a veiled reference to Nelson being in the 2018 NFL draft.
This isn’t just a coach or mentor hyping up his prodigy. Coleman has talked to scouts he knows with NFL teams and said as of a few weeks ago they were giving Nelson a second-round draft grade.
“And I’m like, man, wait until he plays in the Big Ten championship or the bowl game. Iowa, Michigan. His stock is going to rise,” Coleman said. “I’m sure he’s going to run a 4.4 (40-yard dash) at the combine, so if you have him as a second now, just wait until he finishes this thing out. People looked at me crazy when I said this two years ago. I said this guy might get up into the first round, now they look at me ‘Yeaaaah, I see what you’re saying now.’
“I think he’s ready (for the NFL), no question. I’ve had guys that trained with me, a few guys in the league right now, that played DB, I’ve had guys come in and out, that got drafted or in the league right now, and I already know now he’s leaps above them. He’s ready.”
For his part, Nelson said he isn’t thinking about the NFL. “I just try to stay in the now and focus on winning,” he said.
It’s been an interesting journey for Nelson, who admits if you told him after his junior year in high school he’d be playing cornerback at a Power 5 school he’d think you were crazy. Without Coleman falling into his life at precisely the right time, Nelson figures he “probably would have went to a Double-A [FCS] school or wherever I had offers from. I had other smaller offers, so I probably would have went to one of those schools.”
Coleman knows where he hopes the Nelson’s path leads next.
“I’m hoping we can be in Dallas,” he said, noting the site of next year’s NFL draft.
Stopping to think about how their lives intersected and the circumstances behind it, Coleman speaks with reverence and amazement.
“He might be in some 1-AA college that nobody ever heard of,” Coleman said. “I look at it like sometimes crazy things happen. I was in Connecticut and doing the training thing there and starting to get settled, then all of a sudden the wife was like she got a job opportunity at Under Armour, which is based in Baltimore. It’s not home, but pretty much. So I was like, I’m with that.
“Lo and behold as far as the connection and the path, you wonder why some people come into your life, maybe I was the blessing for him to get on the path.”
Dave Heller is the author of Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow, Facing Ted Williams – Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns