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August 16, 2012At the time of former Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson's firing, most people around the program were resigned to the fact that it was his time to leave.
But for one player in particular, the coach's departure was especially tough. When junior defensive back Robert Nelson heard the news, he couldn't help but shed some tears.
Nelson's special bond with Erickson goes back to when the Sun Devil transfer first played at Sun Devil Stadium in 2009 as a member of the visiting Louisiana-Monroe squad.
ASU won 38-14 but for Nelson, that game began a quest for him to play in Tempe again, but this time as a part of the home team.
"The fans were incredible, I felt like it was home," Nelson said. "I don't know why but I felt like I was supposed to be on the other side of the field the whole game, it was just a great atmosphere. I actually told one of my teammates at the time, 'I'm going to transfer here.' He was like 'You ain't going to transfer there, they don't want you.' I had a feeling about it though."
Nelson ended up playing two seasons for Louisiana-Monroe until after his sophomore season he decided to send his tape to coaches around the country in hopes of landing a scholarship on a BCS roster. The problem for Nelson, however, was most big time schools had already filled their allotment by the time they saw him.
So when Nelson told Erickson he would drop all his offers from smaller schools, including Connecticut, to walk-on at ASU, the Sun Devil coach welcomed him with open arms, saying he would try to find him a scholarship eventually. Fortunately for both parties, a scholarship opened up shortly after Nelson arrived in Tempe and the defensive back finally found his home again.
"I told (Erickson) I was all in," Nelson said. "I looked up to him a lot because all the great players he coached. He was willing to take me on and that meant a lot to me."
Nelson spent the entirety of last season on the scout defense, redshirting because of transfer rules. Things were falling into place for the player who said he never forgot the atmosphere of Sun Devil Stadium and used it as motivation.
But when Erickson's firing surfaced, those feelings of accomplishment quickly turned into fear. What would happen to him with the new coaching staff? Erickson's staff was the one who believed in him.
"I was upset, I shed some tears," Nelson said. "But then I spoke with him and he told me I was a great player and that the new coaches would see that. He told me to keep it up and everything will fall into place."
Now eight months into the Todd Graham era, Erickson's prediction appears to have come true. The new coaching staff is so high on Nelson's abilities, he'll likely be a starter to open the season.
"He's a starter and we're straining Robert pretty hard," Graham said Thursday. "He made some pretty good plays today and just has to get used to the pace and discipline and those types of things and he's doing better. Athletically, there's no doubt he's gifted athletically. He's just in a learning process and the pace has been the hardest thing for him."
With so much loyalty to Erickson's staff for bringing him in, Nelson was at first apprehensive to Graham, but that now is all gone and he's enjoying his time at ASU as much as he thought he would when he first came to Tempe three years ago.
"We've had our ups and downs but once you get used to it, you realize that it's about the team," Nelson said. "Sometimes it's tough but you move onto the next play. It gets easier every day. You just have to soak it up like a sponge, I want to be the best player I can be."
So what is going to go through Nelson's mind when he finally does take the field August 30 against Northern Arizona in a Sun Devil uniform? He's not sure, but is definitely looking forward to it, to say the least.
"I'm so excited for that moment," he said. "Every time I run out in the stadium, I'm going to think of the same thing I thought of when I came here from Monroe, those fans were incredible. I can't even explain it."
With his iron boot for a foot, there's little doubt ASU senior punter Josh Hubner will make a run for postseason award honors this season. But instead of the unit running smoothly during fall camp, there have been consistent hiccups in the punting game.
Taking over the long snapping duties this year is true freshman Easton Wahlstrom. Despite the coaching staff showing confidence in the young player, Wahlstrom has struggled to snap the ball accurately throughout fall practices.
He took the blame for not being as good as he knows he can be but also said he's lost some confidence as a part of the struggles.
"I know I can snap the ball well, it's just the mental aspect of it I have to get over," Wahlstrom said. "It's just a mental hurdle, that's all. This is a lot more than I've done before, I know I'm a specialist so I don't do nearly as much as the other guys, but it's a long ways from where I came from. It's just so fast."
Although he's appeared overwhelmed by the long snapping job, Wahlstrom felt assured that once he gets his feet wet in more game scenarios, he'll get back to his old self. The freshman should get a taste of a game atmosphere Saturday when the Sun Devils scrimmage at Camp Tontozona in front of a few thousand people.
"I think Saturday should help me with that," he said. "It's that mental thing of snapping in front of a stadium full of people. I just have to work on my accuracy more."
Afternoon and evening plans
With Wednesday marking the end of ASU's two-a-days for fall camp, the Sun Devils will have some extra time on their hands Thursday and Friday at Camp Tontozona after practice ends around noon.
The team planned to hike Mount Kush, aptly named after former coach Frank Kush, on Thursday in position groups. Once at the top of the mountain, the players were to sing the fight song and raise the team flag.
"We want to let our guys have that experience and then tonight have a team building, character building thing with a speaker coming in to talk to them," Graham said. "Every night we've got six or seven camp fires and it's organized somewhat but we're kind of letting them lead that. That's what it's all about. I haven't had a text message or phone call and I don't want to make my wife mad but it's pretty enjoyable. I haven't talked to one recruit, which I feel pretty bad about that. That's probably the only two or three days in the last I don't know how many that I haven't talked to or facebooked a recruit. It's been really nice to have that."
Graham has enjoyed his time at Camp Tontozona so much, he'd like to extend the Sun Devils' time up north in the coming years to more than the four days this season.
"There's so many distractions and there's no distractions up here," he said. "I'll be honest, I'd love to come up here for a week and a half, two weeks. I'd love to report here and then leave here Saturday, come here for the whole time. I really think our kids will get a lot out of it. Our University, how they have treated us here has been phenomenal."
ASU sophomore running back Deantre Lewis missed practice Thursday, being held out of drills due to a few minor injuries. Graham said he will probably miss about a week's worth of time.
"Deantre has had some back luck because he's had about two or three (issues) right in a row and he's fighting through it, working hard," Graham said. "He was in the best condition of his life, so sometimes things happen like that but you know what that's going to let up and you're going to come through it."
ASU true freshman safety Viliami Moeakiola was back in practice Thursday, taking first team reps in place of senior safety Keelan Johnson, who was held out of workouts for precautionary reasons with what Graham called tightness.
"He's at least competing" Graham said of Moeakiola. "I think he will be the backup at free safety and will compete in some of our dime packages so it was great to have him back going today."
Two days away from Saturday's scrimmage, Graham outlined how he'll run the practice to try to limit his starts from injury.
"It'll be a short scrimmage Saturday, you won't see much from Jamal (Miles), who will be limited and D.J. Foster," Graham said. "We'll probably get 50 snaps with the 1s. There will be a lot of 1s against 2s, 2s against 1s, things like that. We'll get after it because we need an evaluation but we're trying to be smart too at the same time."
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