PHOENIX -- After a practice in April of last year, I talked to Arizona State cornerback Robert Nelson about his first season as a Sun Devil. Near the end of the chat, I asked the senior-to-be how he viewed his role in a secondary that featured established stars like Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor. He then gave me a very succinct and, as the 2013 season proved, accurate answer.
"I'm just the guy who chills in the secondary and gets interceptions," he said.
No player in the Pac-12 intercepted more passes last season than Nelson. He was among four conference players to make six interceptions, which tied him with Troy Nolan's 2007 season for the highest single-season total by a Sun Devil since 1990. A 2011 transfer from Louisiana-Monroe, Nelson capped off his collegiate career by being just the second ASU cornerback (Omar Bolden, 2007) to earn first-team conference honors.
Despite the strong end to his time at ASU and some impressive numbers during his Pro Day workout, the road to the next level was strewn with potholes.
Nelson was not among the three Sun Devil prospects to receive an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, and he was not brought in by any teams for visits. Despite some indications that he would be taken, Nelson was not selected in May's NFL Draft, and he briefly wondered whether he had a future in the game.
He ultimately landed a try out chance with the Cleveland Browns. Once given the chance, Nelson performed well enough over the three-day rookie camp to earn a roster spot with the Browns heading into training camp this summer.
I caught up with Nelson, and we discussed a variety of topics, including his adjustment to the NFL, being teammates with the much-hyped Johnny Manziel, and his ASU career, including a breakdown of "The Interception.
How have rookie camp and OTAs been going so far?
“It’s been going good, experiencing a new life and how things are going in the NFL. I’m happy to be here and it’s a dream come true. “
What were some of the biggest and most striking differences you've seen so far between the college and pro games?
“You have to be in position to make the play on the ball before the wide receiver because when you turn your head, the ball is already there. They throw the ball before the wide receiver even comes out of his route. Everything is fast paced. The playbook, they don’t walk you through it like they did in college. They don’t baby you. They just give you the playbook and say ‘learn it’. If you don’t learn it, they cut you. And you got to stay healthy. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen them cut over 20 people. I’m just trying to learn the playbook, and build relationships with all the coaches and show them that I’m willing to learn.”
How active were you during the pre-draft process? How many teams did you visit or have meetings with?
“I had no visits at all. That was one of the most stressful points for me. I didn’t know if I was going to play football anymore. I knew what I did at ASU, and for me to not get and visit or an invite to the Combine, I was real lost at that time. All I could do was keep working. I went through a process where I had to fire my first agent, because things weren’t working out with me and him. I just felt like I was doing everything on my own. At the end of the day, I kept my faith high. I didn’t get drafted, but the Cleveland Browns called me during the fifth round and told me that they were willing to bring me in. I had to try out. I didn’t even get picked up in free agency. So I had to try out for three days at rookie mini-camp, and then I made it to OTAs. Through all of that, these guys took a chance on me, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
Were you in contact with any other teams?
“The Raiders wanted to. I was talking to the Rams and the Cardinals, but the Rams were on me the most. They were the ones that said they were going to draft me. I spoke with them after the draft, and they said that Michael Sam and some other guys were supposed to go in earlier rounds, but they were still around in the sixth and seventh round. It became a numbers game. I understand how it goes. They took the guys that were higher on their board. That’s why I fell short.”
What was it about the Browns that ultimately set them apart over the others?
“I knew guys on the team. Brandon Magee is on the team. Jamoris Slaughter was on the team at the time, I played in high school with Jamoris. Keavon Milton played at Louisiana-Monroe with me for those two years that I was there. Talking to Brandon, I knew that I had people out there who would help me learn the playbook even faster. Jamoris and Brandon being on defense would help me. Some veterans will help you, some won’t. I knew that those veterans would help me. Having someone like Brandon Magee, who has been with me during my career at ASU and understands what I’ve been through, I just felt like it was a sign from God telling me to go in that direction.”
You've been facing off against Johnny Manziel in practices for a bit. What have been your impressions of him?
“He’s a good player. From what I’ve seen. He’s a humble guy. Real cool dude. A real baller. He’s tough. He throws really hard. He’s an accurate player. I really think he’ll help the Cleveland Browns.”
What goals have you set forth for yourself for your rookie season?
“I’m a competitor. I can see myself and being a starter. I’m not going to say that I’m just going to jump in and take someone’s spot. We have great guys like Isaiah Trufant, Joe Haden, Buster Skrine. I’m just learning from those guys, the corner, nickel, and all special teams, so when I get in the game, I can perform at the highest level. If the coaches feel that they want to start me or they want to give me more reps in the game. My ultimate goal is to be the best DB in the NFL. That’s all I can control.”
Let's talk about one of the defining plays, not just of your career, but of the last several seasons of Sun Devil football: your interception to seal the win over Arizona in 2012. With the Wildcats driving late in the fourth quarter, what was your assignment on that fateful play?
“Keelan Johnson took away one of my interceptions a couple series before that. It was my goal to get an interception in that game because I feel like Keelan stole one from me. My assignment for that game was to lock (Austin) Hill down. Wherever he go, I go with him. I got a tip ball, and I just caught it."
With the ball floating in the air, what thoughts were going through your mind?
"Don’t let it drop. Catch it. Score."
The run back was a wild adventure that ended up just short.
"I wanted to score bad, but I had to slow down because Davon Coleman was blocking for me. The quarterback kind of took him out. A lot of respect for Davon Coleman for running that far with me. He’s a 300-pound lineman and was running down with me the whole field.
"After I saw him take Davon out, I thought for sure I was going to score. I was tired, my legs were dead. Next thing you know, he comes around again after he it Davon. A lineman tried to tackle me and slowed me down a bit, then a receiver came, so there were two guys on me. I wish I would have dove, but it set us up for the win. I can officially say that I’m undefeated against the Wildcats.
“It was one of the best moments of my life.”
You went from a solid contributor as a junior to an All-Pac-12 performer last year. What were some of the reasons you made such a big jump?
“It was competing against those guys: Deveron Carr, Osahon (Irabor). When Coach Graham first came, I was a starter in the spring. Some things happened and Deveron ended up becoming the starter. Just to get that feeling back, I said that I would do whatever I had to do to be a starter, to make an impact, and to help my team. The next year came around and I wasn’t a starter. It was earning everything fair and square. It was how I work off the field when the coaches are not watching and how I work when they are watching. I didn’t want to regret anything. By any means, I had to give everything I had this past year. I wrote my goals out: being No. 1 in the Pac-12 in interceptions, first team All-American, first-team All-Pac-12. I did all I could do and I helped my team. Those long nights running up A Mountain when everyone was asleep. Those are the things that motivated me to be the best.”
How gratifying is it for you to have ended your collegiate career as a first-team All-Pac-12 player, the conference co-leader in interceptions, and most importantly, Pac-12 South champion?
“That speaks volumes. That’s big. I tell these guys with the Browns every day how much I love Arizona State. Just to go out with a bang. Coming from Louisiana-Monroe, you respect the opportunity even more. I can tell you, at Louisiana-Monroe, we didn’t have a fanbase like Arizona State, we didn’t have the campus like Arizona State, we didn’t have people like you talking to us. We were overlooked. Then you have the opportunity to shine. It’s overwhelming. I finally get to breathe. I finally get the chance to show everybody why I’m able to play at this level and how I am able to help teams no matter how big or small you are.”
You are among three starters from ASU's secondary last season that departed. How do you think this unit will perform in 2014?
“I talk to those guys every single day. I talk to Damarious Randall. I talk to Solomon Means. Lloyd (Carrington). Them being with me and seeing everything I went through. If I can make it, I know they can make it. They ask me what they can do to get better, I tell them that they have to work harder than anybody else. Late nights, you have to run A Mountain. You have to catch balls with Jaelen Strong and Taylor Kelly. I see those guys doing it. They’ll record a video and send it to me. The mindset that is changing. They are becoming mature and really want to win. It’s buying in to the system and working their butt off even harder. I really feel that the DB class is probably going to be better than last year.