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ASU Football: Jumping the Route with Cornerback Robert Nelson

In the pass-happy Pac-12, an effective secondary is critical, and senior Robert Nelson is looking to be an answer at cornerback for the Sun Devils.

Nelson with one of his three pass breakups vs. Arizona
Nelson with one of his three pass breakups vs. Arizona
Christian Petersen

As he turned, he saw the pass glance off the receiver's outstretched hands.

The ball fluttered up into the night and was now heading right for him. A single thought ran through his mind.

"Score the touchdown," he told himself.

After 66 yards of full speed cutbacks and tackle-breaking, he came up just six feet short of the endzone, but Robert Nelson did something far more important. He secured the Territorial Cup for Arizona State.

"I was just trying to help my team win the game," Nelson said of his instant-classic fourth quarter interception. "I know that is the most important game for the fans and alumni. So I was just trying to seal the game."

"I'm just the guy who chills in the secondary and gets interceptions"

Mission accomplished.

Five months later, Nelson's goals have changed. He's in the running for a starting spot on one of the nation's best defenses on a team many think is Rose Bowl bound. If those can come to fruition, it would mark the triumphant end to a long journey.

Nelson's road to Tempe is now familiar to most Sun Devils fans.

His first trip to Arizona State came as a member of the opposition, when his Louisiana-Monroe squad came to town to play the Sun Devils in 2010. The trip made such an impact on Nelson that he transferred to ASU after the season.

After sitting out 2011 due to NCAA transfer rules, he saw action in all 13 games last year, including a start against Arizona. Seeing time as the nickelback behind starters Osahon Irabor and Deveron Carr, Nelson finished the season with three interceptions and six passes defended.

Now a few months removed from his first on-field action as a Sun Devil, Nelson looks back at 2012 primarily as a learning experience.

"I did pretty good," Nelson said. "I learned a lot about myself, my team, the new coaches and what we're trying to accomplish here in the future."

Standing at 5-foot-11 and 169 pounds, Nelson has a slight frame which has been the focus of his offseason work. The Sun Devil defense is built on physicality, and Nelson has been working hard to be up to that standard.

"Being more physical," he says of his offseason priority. "We bump probably 95 percent of the game. You have to be big to play that bump technique, so that has been what I've been working on, along with my speed and quickness."

Those improvements have been made with an eye on a prominent role this fall. After three seasons as a starter, Carr has graduated, opening up a starting job opposite Irabor. Now that he is vying for his former teammate's job, Nelson is utilizing some of the lessons that Carr taught him.

"I learned a lot. Deveron was a big time bump man, and I always played off," said Nelson. "I had to evaluate myself, and I had to evaluate him and learn a lot from him. I asked him a lot of questions, like how'd he get good at that technique. He helped me on the field against U of A and other games."

Carr's departure was not the only one suffered by the secondary, who also lost safety and team captain Keelan Johnson. Those two were among the team's most vocal leaders, but while Nelson is ready to step up to fill that leadership void, it is in a different way than his elders demonstrated.

"I lead by example. I'm really not the guy who talks a lot," Nelson admits. "I'm the guy who goes out there and just does it. Osahon's a leader, (Alden) Darby's a leader. They're the guys who speak and pump all the guys up. I'm just the guy who chills in the secondary and gets interceptions. Make plays silently."

"I'm the guy who goes out there and just does it. Make plays silently"

In 2011, the Sun Devil secondary fell apart down the stretch, and ended the season ranked 108th in the nation in passing defense. With Todd Graham's arrival and the new scheme of defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, those results did an immediate about face.

It's often said that the best pass defense is an effective pass rush, and the results in Year One under Graham and Randolph were clear. With ASU ranking second in the nation in sacks, the pass defense improved to No. 3 in the country at a paltry 167.8 yards-per-game in 2012. The importance of the relationship between the rush and the coverage is not lost on Nelson.

"I think it helped us 100 percent. We have blitzes everywhere that force the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly, which allows us to get a lot of interceptions, pass breakups and big hits," Nelson said. "With the D-line rushing in like that, we're able to make plays. And when we're locking up the wide receivers, the D-line is able to make plays. "

Another key figure in the transformation of the secondary has been cornerbacks coach Joe Lorig. Last year, Lorig was able to keep the trio of Carr, Irabor and Nelson effective while simultaneously dealing with a razor-thin depth chart ravaged by injuries. Beyond making Nelson a better player, Lorig has also helped him become a better person.

"He taught me how to be a man, how to evaluate myself as a person and just learn a lot. You can't always some something back," said Nelson. "You just have to roll with the punches, and play with the cards that you've been dealt. I can learn a lot from Coach Lorig. He played D-II ball and was an All-American. Guys like that can teach you a lot because they played your position."

Despite the success last season, the cornerback position is once again being viewed by some with a degree of uncertainty. Irabor and Nelson return, but there are no other proven commodities behind them. Rashad Wadood has returned from a season-ending injury to be one of the team's stars during spring practice, while transfers Lloyd Carrington and Marlon Pollard are looking to make their mark before a few members of the 2013 recruiting class join the team in August.

Despite the question marks, Nelson is not worried about the position. In fact, he rates it along with what some argue may be the Pac-12's strongest unit.

"We're great. We're going to be alright. I feel that the corners and the D-line are going to be the strength of our defense."

With his final year of college football upon him, all the pieces are in place for Nelson to have a banner season, and his goals for 2013 are a reflection of that confidence.

"I want to be the best corner in the nation. A lock down corner. I want to make a lot of plays. I want to make people want to challenge me every day at practice and just know I'm the best, that I'm going to get them better every day."

In the end, football is a team game, and Nelson is definitively a team player. The expectations surrounding this Arizona State team will be sky-high this fall, and Nelson sees big things on the horizon for the 2013 Sun Devils.

"I'm going to go out there and do my best. I'm a team player. We're trying to go to the national championship.

"We're going to have a great year. I feel it."