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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Nelson striving for NFL

Michael Ignatov / Arizona Daily Wildcat

University of Arizona meets UCLA in an NCAA football game in Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz., Oct. 24, 2009. Arizona up 13-3 at the half
Michael Ignatov
Michael Ignatov / Arizona Daily Wildcat University of Arizona meets UCLA in an NCAA football game in Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz., Oct. 24, 2009. Arizona up 13-3 at the half

Cam Nelson will go down as one of the most important players in Arizona football’s recent resurgence to relevancy, and perhaps of all time. Through his skill on the field and his leadership off the field, Nelson was the figurehead in the 2006 recruiting class that helped put Wildcat football back on the map.

Nelson was a three-year starter, a captain and was named a second team All-Pac-10 safety after his senior season. It only seems fitting that such a career should be rewarded with a trip to the NFL Combine and a guaranteed draft pick, but Nelson doesn’t have either.

The always laid-back Nelson is calm and collected when you ask how he’s doing: “”I’m good, just going to class and working out,”” but inside there is a burning desire to prove his doubters wrong.

The beginning

Nelson’s career started as a diamond-in-the-rough recruit out of Kimball High School in Dallas, Texas. He was an option-quarterback and cornerback in high school, and despite interest from some notable schools like Nebraska, he chose to commit to Arizona shortly before his senior season.

Committing to play football at Arizona in 2006 wasn’t exactly a headline-grabber. The Wildcats hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1998 and the culture of the football program was just, well, bad.

But that was part of the appeal for Nelson.

“”One of my goals when I came here was to help turn the program around,”” Nelson said. “”I think we did that.””

Nelson’s fondness for the Stoops brothers — both head coach Mike and then-defensive coordinator Mark — helped him transition into college, and his belief in their system helped him become an instant contributor.

He appeared in all 12 games his freshman season as a special teams standout and reserve defensive back before becoming the starting strong safety his sophomore year.

He remained at that spot his junior year before becoming the anchor of the secondary at free safety as a senior.

Nelson had his coming out party in 2009, as he finally became the leader of the defensive backs after working in the shadows of players like Nate Ness and Antoine Cason.

Nelson took the baton and ran with it. He totaled 64 total tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles, three pass breakups and he finally collected his elusive first career interception.

“”I always thought I was going to be a corner,”” Nelson said, “”so with the transition I made (to safety) I feel like everything turned out pretty good.””

But Nelson’s biggest achievement as a Wildcat was his involvement in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl team and the 2009 Holiday Bowl team.

When Nelson arrived in Tucson, Wildcat football lacked continuity.

“”When I got here, the only thing guys were worried about was their stats or where they’d get drafted and how much money they’d make,”” Nelson said.

Nelson and the rest of the 2006 recruiting class had a simple task: make it to a bowl game. But it was the team-building atmosphere that he helped create as a vocal leader throughout his career and a captain his senior year that will forever stamp Nelson’s Arizona career. 

Pre-draft woes

A career in the NFL was the next logical step for Nelson, and his fellow players and coaches felt the same way.

But not everyone agreed.

The first blow came when Nelson didn’t receive an invite to the NFL Combine. While he was happy for teammates Earl Mitchell and Devin Ross, Nelson believed that he should have made the trip to Indianapolis with them.

“”It kind of made me mad,”” Nelson said as modestly as possible. “”But at the same time I probably wasn’t ready to work out that early so it kind of all worked out. I just felt like, you know, me being a three-year starter, I’d have a shot to go.””

Then came the mock drafts and the prospect rankings.

Nelson was nowhere to be found when draft analysts like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay gloated about who they thought would get drafted where. ranks Nelson as the 58th overall safety in the draft, and lists Nelson 35 out of 139 draft-eligible strong safeties.

There was a silver lining, though: the scouts.

“”There were a lot of (scouts) and even players at the combine and at the all-star game asking where he was,”” Mitchell said of Nelson. “”He’s a good player and he has a good shot (at playing in the NFL).””

This news was a relief to Nelson, and it inspired him to work even harder.

“”Hearing that makes me feel a lot better,”” Nelson said. “”When Vuna (Tuihalamaka) goes on his visits and Earl (Mitchell) goes on his they tell me that teams ask about me so that gives me a little something to smile about.””

Waiting on the big day

With NFL teams starting to take notice, Nelson has become somewhat of a relevant prospect. Scouts like the way he helps defend the run and his feel for the game, but his willingness to do what it takes to help the team is what will land him a spot in the NFL.

Even if his set position isn’t clear at first.

“”They have me as a safety. I told them I’ll play any defensive back (position),”” Nelson said. “”I talked to Nate (Ness) and he told me I could probably play some nickel and dime and a lot of special teams my first year. Whatever it is they need me to do.””

With Ness and Mitchell in his corner, Nelson believes he has what it takes to be an NFL player regardless of where he gets drafted or who picks him up as a free agent.

“”Well, shoot,”” Nelson groaned when asked where he’s heard he might get taken. “”A lot of people got me down as going in the later rounds — fifth, sixth, seventh — or like a top priority free agent. So we’re waiting to see how it turns out. This is all based on how many safeties get picked first.””

Nelson has been working out with Arizona strength and conditioning coach Corey Edmond. He said that continuing to work on his speed and strength will only help his seemingly uphill battle to make the NFL.

His lifelong dream of playing in the NFL is a driving force behind his workouts, but his desire to prove those who doubt him or snubbed him is what might put him over the top.

Just like Nelson’s career at Arizona, it wasn’t easy at first. But it was his hard work and determination that turned him into one of the most important pieces of the resurgence of Arizona football.

He hopes that the same will be true in the NFL, too.

“”It’s a long process,”” Nelson said. “”Right now I’m just waiting to see.””

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