Growing up, Robert Nelson never imagined he would one day be a Sun Devil. A native of Suwanee, GA, he grew in the heart of SEC country while prepping in Florida, a football hotbed brimming with talent.
He originally committed to University of Louisiana-Monroe out of high school, playing his first two years for the Warhawks while enjoying moderate success in the college ranks.
But that all changed in 2009 as UL-Monroe paid a non-conference visit to Tempe for a showdown with Arizona State, one that ultimately left a lasting impression on Nelson.
"Well actually, it was my freshman year, we played ASU when I was at Louisiana Monroe and being out here just felt like home to me," Nelson recalled. "Thankfully, Coach Erickson gave me the opportunity to come here after I was done with my second year and I feel blessed to have this opportunity.
"Before this, I had never been to the West Coast but when I came, I mean, the fans were just phenomenal. It's something that sometimes you don't notice, and even though I was on the other side, I just felt like I wanted to play here. I don't know what in particular it was that night, but it all just warmed my heart."
The corner has enjoyed every moment of the ten months he's been in Tempe since.
"It's really nice," he said of his new school. "It's different, really different. It's been a life-changing experience. I feel like anybody that comes here will really enjoy it and be able to take advantage of life with this kind of experience."
Per NCAA transfer rules, Nelson was forced to sit out last year after once he arrived at Arizona State. However, he's has shown no rust in recent weeks and been quick to make an impression so far this spring, going from backup to potential starter as he's rotated at one of the corner spots with senior Deveron Carr. It's the kind of opportunity Nelson has been hoping for and one he surely doesn't want to let slip away.
"I'm a small guy and have been small all my life, but I play like I'm 225 pounds and run a 4.2," said the 170-pound Nelson on his approach. "As a cornerback, we're on our own island. You've got to have that swag, that attitude, and not a bad attitude, but that confidence that you're not going to get beat. And if you get beat, then you've got to tell yourself you won't get beat on the next play.
"A great cornerback has to stay focused and just know that you're going to get beat. I mean, even the best corners get beat. But you've got to be able to let the play go, sort of slip out of your mind at that exact moment and just know that everything is brand new with the next play. It's a new play, a new start and you've got to be ready to compete."
Last year's Sun Devil squad seemed to play its best football of the season during a stretch early where the defense played aggressively, forcing turnovers, but fizzled down the stretch when those same opportunities weren't available as often.
Through the team's first few weeks of spring practice and two scrimmages, Nelson has proven to be an opportunistic cornerback with unique ability to create turnovers, intercepting passes in each of the teams' scrimmages and a handful more in the practices as well, helping give the defense an edge as the spring sessions progressed.
"I would say, anything that's in the air, I've always been taught to just go and get it," he commented. "I've had a lot of cornerback mentors that have taught me how to position myself and be in the right places to get the ball and I just love coming up with interceptions.
"I like to score just as much as the offense does, so any chance I get at an interception I'm thinking about running it back every time."
One of those mentors Nelson feels fortunate to have had the experience working with was former ASU player Omar Bolden, who despite missing all of last season with an ACL injury, still had a profound effect on the junior and his development at the position.
"Omar is a great guy, man," he exclaimed. "He's such a positive guy. My style and his style are very different, but he would come to me in the meeting rooms and pull me to the side and say stuff like, 'you've got a lot of potential and if you need any help, I'm out there everyday for you,' and coach me up from the sidelines. I'd see him in the hallways and he'd just talk football with me. I've never met a guy like that.
"A lot of guys are all about themselves and may not share their style or techniques with anybody else, but Omar is not a selfish guy. He'd always share information with me, watch film with us and show us how to do things better. He was a great mentor and I wish him the best of luck at the next level."
Also helping guide the way for Nelson and his teammates has been the new coaching staff at Arizona State, in particular defensive backs coach, Chris Ball. The spring sessions have been a crash-course for the secondary as new schemes and philosophies have been introduced as the staff looks for a more aggressive style of play for the 2012 Sun Devil defense.
"The coaches have really been working on our technique," commented Nelson. "They want us to be more physical. We're working on reading the quarterbacks and pursuing to the ball. When the ball's in the air, the really want us to be more of ball hawk and just be an athlete. This is a great coaching staff."
The progress the cornerbacks have made is impressive after just a few weeks. The depth chart is beginning to fill out as Nelson and fellow transfer Steve Gallon make their presences known and others like Rashad Wadood come back from injury.
It's been a productive spring so far for the group, and one to build off of as fall practice looms ahead.
"I think the corners are all doing well," said Nelson. "We're progressing everyday. Steve Gallon is another small corner but he also plays like he's 225 pounds. All of us are out here competing and in the meeting rooms but we're also helping each other.
We're not a group of selfish guys. I've never played with a group of guys like this that are so unselfish. I'm glad to be a part of this team and to be out here competing and trying for a starting spot."
With less than two weeks remaining in the spring, Nelson insists his goal remains locking down a starting position while also trying to remain as healthy as possible, as he begins to feel the toll of the arduous practices the team has been put through so far in camp while also adjusting to the Arizona climate.
"As a corner, we get beat down all the time," Nelson said. "I've just been in the cold tub and trying to get massages to work out the aches. It's really not that bad, it's just how we do it, coach is really working on our conditioning and has us running at a really fast pace everyday.
"I've never done anything like this before. I think in the south it's worse though. You really sweat a lot. Out here, it feels like an oven."