Even though the offensive line experienced significant woes last season, which was partially the result of young players with limited experience being thrown into the fire, some of the players in the offensive trench made strides as the season progressed. One of those players was Zion Nelson who started all 13 games at the challenging left tackle position as a true freshman last year.
However, going into last season, it was unclear whether Nelson would get much exposure as a true freshman. And, two years ago, it did not even seem Nelson would make his way to the U.
Zion’s Road to Miami and Freshman Season
During his recruiting trail, Nelson teetered between a two-star and three-star recruit. In July 2018, the Sumter, South Carolina product initially committed to staying in the Carolinas as he committed to Appalachian State. That commitment didn’t last long as he flipped to the Canes by December of the same year and enrolled early at the U in January 2019.
By spring, Nelson was seeing reps with the first team. By the time the season opener rolled around, Nelson was slated to start at the LT position to cover his QB’s blindside against a University of Florida Defensive End duo that featured Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard, both of whom were drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft.
In his first season, Nelson was supposed to be a developmental project but he ended up starting all 13 games at the difficult-to-learn LT spot. Despite the good experience that included 840 snaps, we was admittedly thrown into the mix. After all, Nelson had played tight end at Sumter as a sophomore prior to moving to left tackle (but the switch to LT made sense for Nelson who has long arms and big feet - size 17 shoes to be exact).
Nelson had an injury in 2017, that he played through, and led his high-powered Sumter offense to a South Carolina state playoff appearance. Nelson was also selected to play in the Carolinas Shrine Bowl.
While Nelson got the exposure to college-level play during his true freshman season, he definitely experienced his fair share of on-field adversity as he rolled with the punches. In particular, Pro Football Focus (PFF) recorded that Nelson accounted for the most sacks allowed of any offensive tackle amongst the Power Five offensive tackles in 2019, as he allowed 12 total (the next most sacks allowed was seven). In his debut against Florida, PFF gave Nelson a 1.4 (out of 100) pass blocking grade. However, he did develop as the season progressed as PFF graded him a 73.9 in the game against FSU.
The up-and-down season shouldn’t be a complete surprise for a true freshman, as he was called upon to answer the tall order of manning the LT spot. In fact, when Nelson joined Miami in January 2019, he clocked in at 6’5”, 240lbs but worked on increasing his frame as he rocketed up to 285lbs for the start of the season. This offseason, he has continued to benefit from David Feeley’s strength program, as Nelson is currently listed at 312lbs.
Zion Nelson can feel TNM energy every day.— Canes F tball (@CanesFootball) February 2, 2019
“The energy I’ve seen in the weight room, everyone seems pumped and ready to work hard all the time. @Coach_DFeeley gets us excited. Everything he does is to make us better.” pic.twitter.com/xQrsM6wkuY
Expectations for 2020
After a turbulent freshman season, that should benefit Nelson strictly due to the immediate collegiate experience, Zion has been tested at different positions this offseason. In the spring, Nelson had an opportunity to work at RT. Thus far in fall camp, however, Nelson has been utilized at LG, which makes sense based on his increase in weight.
Nelson already boasted quality athleticism and work ethic, but now has a more robust frame, so should be a dependable lineman for Miami. In a new uptempo spread offense, Zion will be ready to compete at whatever position the coaches will need to throw him, whether it be LT, RT, or LG. Last season in his debut year, Nelson was unfairly expected to take on the toughest position in an offensive trench that, overall, struggled mightily throughout the season. With the growing pains, Nelson should be even more ready to take the leap in 2020.