Garrett Nelson, the pride of the Nebraska Panhandle, was one of the few true freshmen who burned their redshirts in 2019, and the 6-foot-3 outside linebacker quickly won over the hearts of Husker fans everywhere with his relentless motor and enthusiastic style.
Nelson played in 11 games and logged snaps on defense in 10 of them, missing just one game with an illness. He logged over 120 defensive snaps and recorded 15 tackles (four solo) including 15 for loss as a back-up outside linebacker.
Nelson certainly showed off his inexperience at times, but he also displayed enough strength, pass-rushing ability and relentlessness for fans to be excited about his future as a Husker. I pulled three good plays and three where he struggled to show off the total range of his freshman season.
Nelson only logged 33 snaps in Nebraska’s first six games, but he saw his snap count climb significantly in the second half of the season as he was on the field for at least 10 snaps in each of his last five appearances. The rise in playing time began in Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota where he played 13 snaps.
He made a splash on his first snap. On first and 10 early in the fourth quarter, he lined up at left outside linebacker to the boundary side.
Nelson initially looked to attack the pocket but quickly realized Minnesota was looking to make a quick pass. The receiver from the far side came back towards the formation to set up a tunnel screen. Nelson changed course and worked his way back toward the middle of the field.
The receiver avoided a couple of tackles by Nebraska’s defensive linemen, but Nelson put himself in position to clean things up.
A Minnesota lineman gave Nelson a nice shove in the back (no flag). However…
Nelson kept his balance well enough to dive forward and grab onto the back’s legs, pulling him down for his first career tackle for loss 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Nelson reacted well to the situation to put himself in position to make a play, then executed it despite the help from the big Gopher.
Nelson wreaked some more havoc in the backfield later on in the quarter.
On second and 8, Nelson lined up to the boundary side again with Dicaprio Bootle in the slot to his left. Nelson rushed against the right tackle while Bootle blitzed to the outside.
Nelson hit the tackle with a quick move to the inside and got past him while Bootle went unblocked as the back took the handoff.
Perhaps the running back could have made one man miss, but he didn’t have a chance against two. Nelson and Bootle met at the ball-carrier and took him down for a loss of 2.
The last play from the Minnesota game shows he’s still got some work to do physically.
On third and 7, Nelson lined up on the right side.
Nelson rushed off the edge, but the left tackle got his hands on him a yard past the line of scrimmage as the quarterback handed the ball off.
Nelson got a bit too wide in his rush and the tackle completely washed him out of the play, moving him a few yards and opening up a big hole for the back to run through.
With Nelson out of the way, there was no on left on that side to make a play as the cornerback was still in pass coverage mode. Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry had a shot at him, but his angle was just a bit off and the back beat him up the sideline.
The back ended up stepping out of bounds around the 20, but the play still went for 21 yards.
The following week against Indiana, he played 18 snaps, a new career-high. This time, his snaps came while the game was still very much in doubt, unlike the Minnesota game.
Once again, Nelson made a statement with his first snap. He lined up at left outside linebacker on first and 10 in the first quarter.
After the snap, Nelson rushed at the right tackle then hit him with a rip move to the inside.
By the time the quarterback gave the handoff, Nelson had already beat the tackle and had a clear lane to the backfield.
The back ran straight ahead and Nelson met him quickly, taking him down at the line of scrimmage for no gain.
After the play, we got a nice TV shot of Nelson throwing the bones, which was only the beginning of an extended celebration. He’s a rather excitable fellow.
Nelson saw his most extensive playing time a few weeks later against Wisconsin, logging 31 snaps and five tackles, both career highs.
One play in particular showed the full range of the Garrett Nelson experience. On first and 10 in the fourth quarter, he lined up wide on the boundary side.
On the snap, instead of setting the edge, Nelson dropped back and towards the middle, anticipating a middle run.
Nelson got caught over-pursuing, though, and in doing so he opened a lane for Jonathan Taylor to run back to the right and up the field. A tight end got in the way to help Nelson forward, but he quickly realized his mistake and spun back upfield.
Taylor had an angle on Nelson and plenty of turf ahead of him after he made it through the hole.
Nelson pursued him though and managed to catch Taylor, giving up first down yardage but minimizing the damage caused by his initial mistake by making the tackle.
Taylor picked up 16 yards on the play. Sometimes the desire to make every play can backfire, which is one area of growth for Nelson moving into year two.
Unfortunately, we’re ending on a low note here with one of his 10 plays against Iowa.
On second and 10 late in the first quarter, Nelson lined up to the field side. Nelson played on the boundary side (the short side of the field) on the vast majority of his snaps with a smaller, quicker ‘backer like JoJo Domann or Caleb Tannor on the field side, but Nebraska used a lot of lineups featuring two big outside linebackers (in this case, Nelson and Alex Davis) against Iowa’s run-heavy offense. When Nelson shared the field with Davis, he played on the field side, which gives him more ground to potentially cover.
After the snap, Nate Stanley handed the ball off to the running back and Nelson originally held his ground to defend against a cut-back. The back continued forward to run behind the left tackle while Will Honas worked his way through traffic to meet him. Nelson thought he saw a chance to make a play so he bailed on contain and rushed forward.
The back was ready for him, though, stepping backwards and spinning towards the sideline as Nelson went sailing by. Whoops.
With Nelson out of position, the back had plenty of space as he angled toward the sideline, picking up 21 yards before a Husker finally managed to take him down.
Nelson played one more snap against Iowa before taking a seat for the rest of the game. Once again, the nose for the ball and high-revving motor can cause some problems if it isn’t properly channeled. Nelson also seemed to struggle at times with reading multiple-option play fakes as he locked in early on the running back, leading to a couple of nice runs — one by the quarterback and one by a receiver on a jet sweep.
Nelson will improve in those areas as he continues to gain experience, though, and he has the physical tools to be an impact player. Nelson didn’t dominate on a snap-to-snap basis, but I saw many examples of Nelson man-handling blockers including one play where he put a right tackle flat on his back. He wasn’t asked to drop into coverage much, but he looked fluid enough on the occasions where he play called for it.
Nebraska needs more production from the outside linebacker spot in 2020. Alex Davis is gone, and while Caleb Tannor has seniority on Nelson, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the sophomore from Scottsbluff play a big role in 2020.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.