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August 19, 2013

Nelson shifts to safety following Ball injury

Senior cornerback Robert Nelson did something he had never done before on Monday morning. He played safety.

When freshman safety Marcus Ball showed up to practice Monday with his arm in a sling it was interesting to see who the coaches would pick to replace him at free safety.

The answer Monday was Nelson.

"I feel Robert had one of the better scrimmages and would have been our starting corner so we've got to take a look [at him at safety]," Graham said.

Graham said Ball should be out 3-to-5 weeks nursing the injury and no surgery will be required. Since Ball was the starting safety, coaches are scrambling to adjust.

Graham called Nelson one of the four best defensive backs along with senior cornerback Osahon Irabor, senior safety Alden Darby and junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington. Graham said they are trying to get their best four players on the field together due to their familiarity, so that is why they tried Nelson at safety.

Both redshirt freshman safety Laiu Moeakiola and freshman safety James Johnson were practicing Monday, but it was the Nelson taking the first team reps Monday.

Although he has never played the position before Nelson said he enjoyed it.

"I love playing off at corner so it's easier for me," Nelson said. "I can see everything at safety. It's easier to me. Corner is a more stressful position and me switching to safety, today being my first day, I feel comfortable."

Nelson said being farther back is one of the perks of the new position. He likes being able to hang back, see the entire field and react to the quarterback.

But one part of the job interests him the most.

Free safety is the last man standing. If a corner or linebacker gets beat or a running back makes it to the third level, only the safety stands in the way of a touchdown.

Nelson thought back to the Arizona game last season. He said he was in a lot at nickel corner and former free safety Keelan Johnson played behind him. Nelson said there was a couple plays when a receiver got behind him and Johnson would be right there to back him up.

Nelson is excited to take on that role and be there for his teammates.

"I feel great that coach Graham has faith in me to put me in this kind of position to help the team," Graham said. "You can get a lot of interceptions and make a lot of plays and make a lot of tackles at the position. It's a big responsibility but I'm willing to do whatever."

There are only a couple days left before the first kick-off. Nelson knows the extra work he must take on now with the position change.

"I've got to be in the film room all day every day," Nelson said. "We've got 17 days until game time so I've been in the film room every single day."

Even though Nelson felt comfortable today the position battle is far from over. Clearly Ball will not be taking the field for the opener.

When junior college transfer junior safety Damarious Randall returns from a groin injury that has kept him on the sidelines all camp, he, Johnson and Moeakiola will continue to compete for the job.

"Obviously we've got confidence in Laiu that he can do it and we've got to get our best guys on the field and I like getting our most speed on the field so we're kind of taking a look at that," Graham said. "I think [Nelson] liked it and can do it. Damarious is probably 10 days from full speed and a few days from being able to go non-contact so we're making some progress there."

If Nelson is going to be the guy he will have to mesh with the rest of the defensive backs quickly, learn the alignments, and be able to make all the calls in reaction to offensive formation changes and motions.

"It's kind of like the offensive line," Graham said. "I don't like to have different guys in there all the time so I'm trying to use the same four guys in there who are used to each other."

Nelson's move does put a wrinkle into the nickel package because he was the third corner in the set.

Redshirt sophomore cornerback Rashad Wadood would seemingly be the next corner in line. Junior college transfer sophomore cornerback Solomon Means has played well this fall and might be another contender for that cornerback spot, and he's received a lot of second-team nickel reps.


  • Only one new addition to the players wearing green jerseys Monday. Senior linebacker Anthony Jones was wearing the no contact shirt after Saturday's scrimmage. He was participating in team drill fully and Graham said it was a minor injury. But redshirt freshman linebacker Carlos Mendoza was taking first team reps at spur over Jones.

  • Freshman wide receiver Cameron Smith, junior college transfer junior wide receiver Joseph Morris, senior running back Kyle Middlebrooks and Randall were wearing green jerseys.

  • Sophomore running back D.J. Foster was dressed and participating practice without a green jersey after having to be helped off the field Saturday following a tackle that hurt his right lower leg.

  • Graham was very proud of the defense Monday. He said they dominated the last team session, rebounding from Saturday's offensive manhandling of the defense. The offense had three turnovers Monday.

  • Freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez has all but assured himself of the starting place kicking job. Graham said he was lights out in practice Monday, making kicks from 30, 45 and 47 yards.

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