Nick Henrich remembers the moment he realized Garrett Nelson was a football guy.
They both were early enrollees in January 2019 and roomed together. After they moved all their belongings into where they were staying and said their goodbyes to their parents, the two linebackers from opposite ends of the state—Henrich from Omaha and Nelson from Scottsbluff—had some downtime. It was around 9 p.m.
“He was like, ‘Hey, you wanna go lift?'” Henrich said with a smile. “Garrett’s as football guy as you can get. He loves the game and his passion is something that rubs off on everyone.”
Nelson, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound outside linebacker, has been a mainstay along the Husker front seven for three years. As a true freshman in 2019, he had 15 tackles while playing in 11 games. He was thrown into the Big Ten fire right away, so to speak, and played like it. It was basically see ball, get ball. Mistakes were made. But they were also made at 100 miles per hour, and sometimes that produces good plays, too.
“When he first got here he played like his hair was on fire. Didn’t know what he was doing. Was a little stiff coming out,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said.
The Garrett Nelson that suited up in 2019 is still the same Garrett Nelson fans watched Saturday night at Michigan State, except now he has 24 career games under his belt. The freshman version of Nelson may not have turned in the performance against Sparty—four tackles, two for a loss with one sack and a batted pass—that third-year Nelson did.
That’s a testament to his work ethic and growth as an outside linebacker in Nebraska’s defense, which isn’t an easy position to play. Outside ‘backers for Chinander need to be able to get dirty and play the run on one play, and pin their ears back and rush the passer the next. At times they’re used in pass coverage, too, dropping out to the flat or matching somebody in zone pressures.
A big part of being an outside ‘backer is setting edges and keeping the ball carrier from getting outside and turning the corner. If a defensive player sets the edge, they’re turning the runner back inside where the help can get to the ball. Here’s an example of Nelson setting the edge against Michigan State:
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that position and there’s a lot of things technique-wise that you have to know, a lot of looks you have to understand and a lot of fits they have to understand in the run game,” Chinander said of his outside ‘backers. “Then—and we all know in the Big Ten that the tackles are really good, that’s no secret—they gotta go beat a tackle in pass rush.”
Nelson recorded one of his stops behind the line of scrimmage against Michigan State left tackle Jarrett Horst, a 6-6, 305-pound senior. Nothing, including Horst, kept Nelson from getting to the ball on that play:
Nelson leads the defense with seven tackles for a loss and is tied for second in quarterback hurries with two.
Every practice, every game, every walk through, Nelson is going to be the hardest worker. That’s high praise, and it comes from his position coach, Mike Dawson.
Dawson said Nelson has embraced that football is an “all-the-time thing” and not just on Saturdays. Work ethic is a term used in sports countless times, but with Nelson it’s true. He watches film with the same zest and intensity as he plays the game with.
And he’s learning. Always learning.
“He’s a sponge and wants you to tell him the truth,” Dawson said. “When it’s not going right, it’s, ‘Coach, what did I do wrong, how did I mess that up, where do I need to have my eyes,’ instead of going the other way of, ‘Well you see, the reason why I didn’t do it like that was because,’ and then there’s a story behind it. Now he goes, ‘Alright, why didn’t I do it right, how do I fix it,’ and he gets things done.”
There’s always room for improvement, though. More production should come. Dawson wants Nelson to be better at rushing the passer and racking up TFLs.
The secret to Nelson’s success according to Chinander is his understanding of the game—he’s much smarter now, and that development came with reps.
“What I’ve seen with him is, his knowledge of the game has increased dramatically. His technique has increased dramatically. And his overall movement skills have increased dramatically,” Chinander said. “When you got a guy like him as a freshman who plays as hard as he did, and wants it as bad as he did, then it becomes, ‘We need to get him in the game and we’ll live with some mistakes, but let’s coach him up because we know we can develop him into a good football player.’
“I think coach (Mike) Dawson has held up his end of the bargain and Garrett Nelson has held up his end of the bargain.”
Nelson is enjoying the best season of his career. And like Henrich said, having a player like that on defense, someone who plays with passion and even a bit of crazy—he got two teeth knocked out against Penn State last season and can joke about it—rubs off on everyone else.