For the first half of the season, Robert Nelson has been an inconsistent player for the Sun Devils, namely as a punt returner. Through the first six games, Nelson was averaging just 5.42 yards per return and would let the ball bounce in some instances when a catch should have been made, ultimately hurting the team in the field position battle in a couple of games.
“It was just a lack of focus, and comfort,” Nelson explained. “It’s been three years since I was at Louisiana Monroe since I actually returned one in a game so it was just a comfort thing. But once I got in my zone I was good.”
At the beginning of the season, Nelson said the coaches told him that they wanted him to be a dynamic athlete that would deliver explosive plays in the return game.
With that in mind, Nelson felt like he had to make an amazing play on every punt, and that really wasn’t conducive to productive play. Any mishap would set his mind in a whirlwind.
“If you drop a couple of balls, your confidence is going to go down like, ‘man, I have got to catch this one.’ But coach Alexander, I meet with him and we go over extra things like that in the film room and techniques like that. It’s just having great coaching and someone who knows how to talk to you, if you drop one, ‘it’s alright, it’s alright. Focus up, forget about that one and go to the next one,’ and that’s what he tells me. That’s a comfort level for me also.
“I feel like with great players, there are always going to deal with those hard times because a lot of people expect a lot out of you. You just have got to focus up, take the coaching however it is and help your team.”
As far as his natural position at corner, Nelson is a part of one of the best pass defenses in the Pac-12, and is first on the team with three interceptions. And while he has struggled at some points throughout the season in coverage, that aspect of his game is getting better each and every week.
There’s been a couple of situations throughout the season in which you could see from the press box and the television broadcast where head coach Todd Graham was irate with the performance of Nelson at corner, whether it was a missed assignment or just poor coverage in general.
But after two games in which Nelson had been one of the standout players on that side of the ball, Graham has taken notice and given him praise for his efforts.
“He made one of the most spectacular interceptions (against Washington State) I’ve ever seen,” Graham said. “It’s just we have got to be consistent every play. But I’m really proud of him and how he’s played this year. He’s taken his game to a different level, but obviously there have been some things that we could do better, mainly just some technique things. But he’s doing a great job for us.”
Arizona State’s pass defense is ranked third in the Pac-12, allowing just over 217 passing yards per game. The Sun Devils are coming off of a game against Washington State where they allowed Connor Halliday to throw for 300 yards – which may sound like a lot, but it’s a little over half of what No. 3 Oregon allowed in their previous game (557).
“It feels great that we are one of the best, and I’m in that starting lineup where I can help my team,” Nelson said. “Whether it’s keep gathering tackles, or interceptions, man that’s the best part of the game is just celebrating with my teammates. We call ourselves the bird gang and no-fly zone, so anything that’s in the air we are expected to get it.”
Nelson is one of the three seniors that starts on the ‘bird gang’ for Arizona State in 2013. After the season is finally over, they are going to have to pass the torch to the younger guys in the unit.
While Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor are constantly praised for their leadership and their outspoken personalities, Robert Nelson likes to coach up the younger players behind the scenes and out of earshot.
“I don’t speak to them loud for everybody to hear,” Nelson said. “I will go up behind them and talk to them individually. I’m not a guy that likes all of that attention. I’d rather be silent and go to them individually and say, ‘man look let’s step this up, or you did this wrong.’
“I don’t want to put a person on blast so they feel like, ‘Why is Rob trying to do this to me?’ I go to them like a man like I feel I should and speak with them. If you want to work out with me or if you want to go over some film with me I’m going to be in the film room at this time, we can do that.”
With the senior leadership as strong as it is, and the results of the last two games being complete dominations for all intents and purposes, there’s no reason as to why this Arizona State football team’s confidence shouldn’t be higher than ever. The Sun Devils haven’t been in this good of a position late into a season in quite a while – sitting at 6-2, 4-1 in the Pac-12 and in sole possession of first place in the south.
“Yeah our confidence is as high as it has ever been since I’ve been here,” Nelson said. “A lot of people say that we lose games in November, but how our team is built, we are more disciplined. We are worrying about going out and winning games and taking it week by week.”
Arizona State goes out to Salt Lake City this weekend to take on a Utah team that has defeated No. 5 Stanford at home. The Devils have only won one road game so far this season; so winning on the road against the formidable Utes can only increase ASU’s confidence heading forward into the final three- game stretch.
“They play good at home,” Nelson said of Utah. “We just have got to be disciplined. That’s what we expect, first off, to be disciplined, and then know our assignments, play fast and physical. We just have to stay focused and we will be great.”