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September 12, 2013When then-true freshman Robert Nelson awoke on the morning of Sept. 19, 2009 in Tempe, Ariz., transferring schools was the last thing on his mind.
There was a big game to get ready for, after all. But as he warmed up with his teammates at Sun Devil Stadium, that was the persistent thought in his head, eating away at what should have been his singular focus.
Nelson was a cornerback for Louisiana-Monroe, a visitor to Arizona State that day.
"We were on the sideline going through our walk," Nelson said. "I was like, 'man, I really want to transfer here. I want to play here.' During the whole game, it just hit me. The crowd was so loud, it was like I was meant to be here and play here. I felt like I was supposed to be on the same side as ASU. After I was just looking out of the window on the plane thinking. 'I want to go there man.'"
Following ULM's 38-14 loss to the Sun Devils, Nelson's friends didn't even give his comments the time of day.
"I told my teammates and they didn't buy into it at all," Nelson said. "They told me, 'they ain't going to accept you man! You're way too small, they don't want you!' 'Watch me,' I said. 'I'm going to play here.'"
It took another year but Nelson ultimately got the last word on the subject, transferring to ASU following his sophomore year.
During a discussion with then-ASU head coach Dennis Erickson, Nelson told Erickson he wouldn't consider any other offers in exchange for simply getting a walk-on opportunity at ASU.
Erickson agreed, and Nelson didn't have to wait too long before a scholarship was available, and it was given him as he demonstrated he was one of the defense's top cover corners even while working on the scout team.
"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 next year redshirting per NCAA rules on transferring and emerged as a regular contributor for Erickson's replacement, Todd Graham, the following year.
In all, Nelson saw action in all 13 games in 2012, playing more of a significant defensive role in the latter half of the season as a nickel back. Nelson had 16 total tackles on the year, including one tackle for loss coming against Illinois.
Nelson arguably also had his best game in his only start, when he he broke up three passes, tallied four tackles and nabbed one interception in a win over Arizona. That interception was the first of two in back-to-back games, with his second one coming against Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl nearly a month later.
This year however, coaches have been working with Nelson to complete his overall game. While being solid at man coverage, it's no secret that Nelson has clear room to improve in when it comes to zone coverage. He's the first to admit it.
"I'm a big man to man guy," Nelson said. "I never really played zone. Since high school and at Monroe, we played a lot of 3-3-5, so that meant for me either cover two, so just the flats, or man. It's just an adjustment to the system and learning. All I can do is come out here and soak it up like a sponge from coach (Todd) Graham."
After true freshman Marcus Ball was lost to injury in the Camp Tontozona scrimmage, coaches immediately began to tinker with other options at the field safety position. Coaches gave Nelson a look at safety beginning with the very next practice, but in the end settled on redshirt freshman Viliami Moeakiola and put Nelson at the starting field corner position.
Even then, Nelson took advantage of the short lived opportunity.
"It helped me learn who is helping me in the coverage," Nelson said. "It helped me learn to keep my eye on coach (Todd) Graham, helped me know the adjustment calls, basically everything you have to do as a whole defense. As a corner, you're getting the calls from the safety. As safety, you have to know everything going on just like a quarterback does for the offense so it really gave me an all-around better knowledge of the defense."
Not only does Nelson start at the field corner position, coaches take advantage of his versatility and athletic ability by sliding him into the slot as the first-team nickle back and playing him in multiple special teams roles such as edge rusher on field goal defense or returning punts.
No matter the position, Nelson has a quick answer as to what gives him the capability.
"Speed," Nelson said. "Speed kills man. That combined with having knowledge of the game and a lot of experience is what can set me apart. I played against some great teams when I was at (Louisiana) Monroe and obviously here. It's just game experience and knowing what [coaches] expect, you know not to get nervous. If you're a rookie and you get beat, you're like, 'ah man.' But as a veteran and as you develop, you know that you just move to the next play. Every great player gets beat. You just have to know that you have to move to the next play, be mature about it and don't let your team down."
This was evident during Arizona State's first game of the season.
After a long 18-play drive by Sacramento State, the Sun Devil defense finally stopped the Hornets on third down. On the ensuing field goal attempt, Nelson displayed his athleticism by coming up with the block off the edge.
Nelson said he was proud of the play and relishes the opportunity to have more like it.
If he had it his way though, he'd rather be able to do more of it beyond this year ASU.
"A lot of nervousness about leaving this place," Nelson said. "It's been amazing to me since I've been here. A lot of wanting to stay and celebrate with the guys this year and years to come."
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