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How Zion Nelson can go from 2-star to starter

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Butch Barry is working magic with Mr. Nelson in Coral Gables

NCAA Football: Miami Spring Game Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Zion Nelson was only a two-star prospect (bumped to three-star after signing with Miami) out of Sumter High School in South Carolina. Nelson had verbally committed to Appalachian State when Miami’s staff swooped in and flipped Nelson to the ‘Canes. The six-foot-five, 240 pounder looked more like a tight end than a tackle upon signing day. However, Nelson early enrolled in January which gave him a head start on strength and conditioning, as well as ACC-level diet and nutrition.

Nelson got himself into the weight room and started to grow immediately. Coaches say Nelson is already up to 270 pounds and has been playing great football at left tackle for the Hurricanes. He’s playing so well that DJ Scaife repped at guard during the spring game while Nelson manned left tackle.

Is this even possible? Is this more of a move to motivate the tackles already on the roster like George Brown Jr., DJ Scaife, Kai-Leon Herbert and Zalon’tae Hillery? I doubt Butch Barry would waste valuable spring game time while he’s in a rush-mode to get his players geared up for August 24th against in-state rival Florida. But doesn’t this seem like a far-fetched explosion for one young Sun Belt recruit?

Let’s take a look at how Nelson could already be in the starting rotation come August.


What makes a great offensive tackle?

Dan Enos seems to be running a zone-based Air Raid-based scheme at Miami. From the little bit of film acquired from the two open scrimmages, Miami’s running concepts were mostly draw and zone while the passing concepts were mostly Air Raid based (shallow cross, mesh, flood) and pass protection looked like the tackles were in man. So in that scheme, what makes a great offensive tackle is footwork, hips, and leverage.

In the screenshot above, you can see what happens when you lose footwork, hips and leverage. The tackle is leaning, off-balance, bending at the waist instead of using hips, and his feet get crossed up as he falls to the ground (see the GIF below). These are things most high school offensive tackles have already fixed by their time on varsity, not things a college offensive line coach should have to work on pre-game.

Nelson gets a rep towards the 55 second mark and does a much better job than his counter-part on the right side. Is it a flawless rep? No. He gets too high and at one point both feet are actually off the ground once he opens his hips and rides the defensive end.

However, he’s leaning a lot less than Herbert and uses his long arms to extend and keep distance between the defensive player and his face. I would like to see his hips down further and a push off of the inside of the right foot versus the right toe. The chest should be down a notch with his hips being dropped so when he punches the defender it’s the same motion of a power clean and his hands are more of an upper-cut than a jab.

With guys like Dykstra, Hillery and Campbell being dominated in the drill it’s no wonder Nelson is appearing to be a contender at left tackle. As you watch the full video from Manny Navarro, even Scaife who I am very high on gets beat. Dan Enos seems to like Zion per the Miami Herald, and it’s never a bad thing for a young freshman to stand out like Nelson has.

On Nelson’s high school tape, I like that he runs out in space on screens and pulls from his tackle position. However, a negative that you see is he’s a lunger; he is always over extending the top half without the hip drive and balance. This causes him to end most plays on the turf as opposed to on his feet.

Why is he lunging? It could’ve come from being so tall that he hadn’t learned how to balance his long limbs. It also comes from a lack of work in a high school weight room on mobility, stability and flexibility. High school strength coaches (read: typically just a guy with PE certification) are often more obsessed with 1-rep max numbers that they forget to build strong mechanics in movement during pivotal growth ages of adolescence.


Miami’s running game

Miam’s running game, at least in the spring, has been based upon draw, swing-draw, what looks like wide zone and inside zone. Without an end zone view the running concepts can be difficult to decipher. However, It’s not asking Nelson to do a lot of mashing up front. The first two plays are pass protections for him, and on inside zone if he’s the back side tackle he’s blocking a linebacker which he does well on his high school tape.

One the wide zone plays he seems to just be stepping down and inside while the h-back or fullback are kicking out the defensive end or stand up linebackers. Needing to grind it out and have someone run off-tackle behind him doesn’t seem to be on Dan Enos’ current call sheet and if Miami runs dart the play side would be a turn out while the back side is a pull- that’s great for Nelson, too.

On the clip below, Nelson does a great job of setting like pass protection and riding the defensive end up field and away from the line of scrimmage where the defender could make a play on the football.


History: Winston and Fox

Miami has converted tight ends to offensive tackles and made it work out. The benefit is that Nelson isn’t a converted tight end, he was a tackle in high school and understands the position. The downside is he’s not as athletically gifted as Eric Winston was when the Texan was converted to offensive tackle while at Miami. Winston was a four-star prospect and USA Today All-American before signing with Miami.

Another former Hurricane was a tight end turned tackle, too. Jason Fox was a late switch to offensive tackle in high school. While Winston is six-foot-seven, Fox is six-foot-four. Nelson falls in the middle at six-foot-five. Fox used his athletic skills and four-star ranking to sign with Miami. Winston’s NFL career spanned a decade while Fox played in the league for six seasons.

Miami has a history with tall, lanky linemen converting to tackle and being All-ACC players. Hopefully Nelson is the next in line. The guys that have to bulk up may lack the raw strength of a Navaughn Donaldson type but they usually excel at balance, footwork, and mobility where the bigger guys struggle.


Summary

My honest take is that I like really athletic offensive tackles for not only the scheme that I call as an offensive coordinator, but for Dan Enos’ scheme as well. If Coach Enos is going to ask his tackles to be one-on-one with defensive ends in the ACC, out in space, going man to man, they’re going to have to have great footwork, balance, and agility. Nelson seems to be bringing that to the table.

He’s also taking his diet, nutrition and time in the weight room seriously. Just watch the film of guys who have been on campus for multiple years longer and how much better he looks in his stance, while making contact, and in moving his feet. His body language is much more positive and energetic as well.

I don’t think you can convert a project into a day one starter every single time, but I do think it seems the ‘Canes found the right kid to do it with in Nelson. If it works this time watch out, a lot more projects and converted tight ends will be coming to Coral Gables to play tackle in the future.