When word surfaced late last week that Arizona State senior running back Marion Grice would be unavailable for the team's regular season finale against Arizona, speculation ensued about who would step up to fill his void. While most Sun Devil fans figured Foster would be tabbed as his likely replacement, very few expected to see Nelson, who last played running back at Senior Chavez High School nearly four years, to line up in the ASU backfield.
But in a surprise move, Arizona State Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell went to the 6'3", 230 pound tight end early and often last Saturday, and Nelson delivered with a career-game of his own, rushing for 35 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries to go along with one catch for 21 yards in the win.
"Man, it felt good," said Nelson after practice on Wednesday on his breakout performance. "It felt really good, especially to dominate the way I did. It was truly a blessing."
For the season, Nelson has recorded seven receptions for 107 yards and two receiving touchdowns while demonstrating an ability to contribute in a variety of ways.
But playing without Grice last Saturday, Nelson sensed another opportunity to step up for his teammates and deliver in a near must-win game for the Sun Devils.
"Mentally it wasn't much," remarked Nelson, who was once rated as the 158th highest running back prospect in the nation as a senior in high school. "It took some meetings with the coaches to get everything in my head, but I just knew that we had a brother that went down and being a team player like I am, I knew that I had to step up and that's what I did for him.
"I felt it the whole week, from the other players on the team and just, throughout the community. I felt it and knew it was a big game. I knew it meant a lot for us to get that game and to keep the Cup."
But Nelson's willingness to step in wherever needed shouldn't come as a surprise to Arizona State fans anymore. Already this season he's served as the primary back-up at tight end and a significant contributor on special teams, while also getting reps at defensive end and now at running back.
Nelson has already tallied 16 total tackles on the season and against Arizona was at his best again, coming up with three tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
For his efforts this season, Nelson was one of 17 Sun Devils named to the Pac-12‘s All-Conference Team on Monday as an honorable mention on special teams.
The 17 all-conference members equaled an Arizona State school record previously set in 1997 and were tied for the most in the Pac-12, along with Stanford.
"My passion for special teams is big and I take it very seriously," he said. "Not many teams and not many athletes take special teams serious, but here, we take it very serious. We know that if we win special teams, we'll win the game. And with the coaches taking it so serious, I try to take it serious because it's a job I know I must complete."
Another Sun Devil who earned All-Conference honors was the senior Coyle, who earned a spot on the First Team Offense with 28 receptions for 413 yards and four touchdowns while helping ASU average the eight most points in the nation (43.3) this season.
"Chris has had a big impact on me, both on and off the field this year," Nelson commented. "He's taught me how to, sort of, take in the whole D-1 college experience. He's taught me a lot about this offense and has helped me mature and mold me into the player that I am."
With their win over the Wildcats, Nelson and the Sun Devils notched their first 10 win season since 2007 and home-field advantage for this Saturday's Pac-12 Conference Championship Game against #7 Stanford (10-2, 7-2) for the right to play in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
It's also an opportunity for #11 Arizona State (10-2, 8-1) to gain redemption for their humbling 42-28 defeat to the Cardinal earlier this season; a loss that still burns for Nelson.
"What I think went wrong in that first game was, we just had a lot of mistakes," he said. "We had a lot of turnovers, including on special teams with the punt and that really hurt us. We just got off to a slow start. We've been working to correct all of it and we've really been at a high level of focus all week.
"We've just got to keep doing what we've been doing. Obviously they've got a great defense but as long as we play as one unit and take care of the things that we need to take care of, we'll be good."
Arizona State enters this weekend's championship showdown on a seven game win streak and undefeated at home this season (7-0) for the first time since 2004.
ASU, which hopes to use the home-field advantage to reach its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1997, has averaged 49.1 points per game at Sun Devil Stadium this season while outscoring their opponents by nearly 28 points per game.
"It's a big advantage for us," added Nelson. "We play differently at home. It's just a different atmosphere here. We're undefeated at home and it's just great that we can bring this one back here to our fans."