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ASU Football: Robert Nelson sizes up Wisconsin

The most versatile member of the Sun Devil secondary sheds light on the game plan for Saturday night.

It's Robert Nelson's moment.
It's Robert Nelson's moment.
Christian Petersen

With injuries and inexperience plaguing the Arizona State secondary, all of the talk heading into the season opener focused on who isn't filling the open voids.

The Sun Devils' still have their question marks in the defensive backfield, but they also have one solution that serves as an answer to nearly all of their problem.

It's Robert Nelson.

Nelson didn't start last season, but he did see significant playing time. Although Sun Devil fans remember him for his 66-yard interception return in the Territorial Cup, Nelson's impact went beyond one game.

This year, Nelson prepared to step into the starting cornerback role vacated by Deveron Carr. That was until an unexpected hurdle forced the Sun Devil coaching staff to reconsider how they utilize him.

True freshman Marcus Ball won the starting field safety job in fall camp, but Ball suffered a separated shoulder in the Camp Tontozona scrimmage. A spot opened and Todd Graham called upon Nelson to take a crash course in playing safety.

"I learn what calls I'm giving the linebackers, reading the linemen," Nelson said of the responsibilities of a safety. "It's a lot but it gets you smarter on the field and it helped me at corner also because I don't have to depend on the safety."

While Nelson isn't as vocal as Alden Darby, he understands the demands of playing one of the most important positions on the field.

"Safety helps me to learn everything on the field, it's like the quarterback of the defense."

Last week, the Sun Devils decided that redshirt freshman Laiu Moekiola progressed to the point where Todd Graham felt comfortable starting him at field safety. So Nelson continued his ride on the merry-go-round and circled back to his usual spot at corner.

Nelson has devoted the entirety of this week to his natural spot at cornerback because he knows what's at stake. Most know for Wisconsin for their ability run the ball, wide receiver James Abbrederis remains one of the best targets in the Big Ten Conference. If Nelson and company miss their reads, it could mean a long day for the Sun Devil secondary.

"They're a great running team, everyone knows that and they'll get you with the play-action pass on the fake," Nelson said. "That's the most important, our secondary has to be disciplined."

But stopping the run is still the chief motive for the Sun Devils' starting eleven. The Sun Devil cornerbacks need aggressive run fill to force Wisconsin's backs into the heart of the defense and keep plays from breaking open.

"That's one of the main factors Coach Graham talked about and we watched it on film," Nelson said. "They're going to make your secondary tackle."

Nelson knows the Badgers possess an arsenal of weapons, but the key to withstanding Wisconsin's assault comes from within.

"I see them on the field, they're fast, physical, the linemen are 6-foot-8, 300 pounds," Nelson said. "You just have to go in there physical, it's in your heart."

It's easy to see why there's so much excitement surrounding this football game. The Badgers are a Big Ten powerhouse while the Sun Devils appear to be on the brink of greatness. Sun Devil fans have been on the edge of their seats waiting for this game to take place. As for Nelson, he's been waiting his whole life.

"This is something you dream about as a little kid," Nelson said. "I grew up watching the SEC, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, like, ‘Will I make it there?' But I'm in one of the best conferences you can play in."

More than 70,000 fans will pack Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday night. Dressed in black to match Arizona State's uniforms, the Sun Devils are hoping to cultivate a home field advantage that no opponent can overcome.

In college sports, teams thrive on the excitement of their student sections and their fan base. Todd Graham has brought intensity back to the program, and Nelson says the players want to reward the fans for buying into the mission with their best effort.

"The fans have been talking about this since the summer," Nelson said. "We just have to be focused. We know what the black out is about, we know what we have to do. We can celebrate after the black out. When we're in the game, it's time to focus."

Nelson knows what this moment feels like. He's played in big games, he's faced intimidating teams, and he understands what it means to be in the spotlight. Even though Wisconsin is menacing, Nelson isn't ready to back down.

"They're a great team, we're a great team, we're working hard," Nelson said. "They put on their pants just like us."