David Nelson: Bigger, Stronger, Faster, Ready

The throw from Tim Tebow was low and away from the cornerback, the only place it could be completed. David Nelson went into a slide and gathered the ball in with his hands, cradling it against his chest at the one yard line. It was a difficult throw and catch, but Tebow and Nelson made it look easy. Later in the practice, they hooked up again on a hitch and go route down the west sideline. All Nelson had to do on this one was bring the ball in because the throw was perfect.

This is the David Nelson that was the Army All-American, playing confidently and showing off an entire range of skills from precise route running to sure hands that haul in every throw to setting up a DB for a sudden burst of speed that gains separation. He took a red-shirt last year as a true freshman and though it killed him inside to watch everybody else playing while he stood on the sidelines, he knows it was the best thing in the world for him.

"I think I was able to use the time wisely," he said. "I'm bigger (210 now as opposed to 182 when he arrived), stronger, faster and I understand all the work that goes into getting to the point that it's all reaction instead of last year when I was having to think all the time."

Coming out of high school, Nelson was a hotshot receiver in Texas that put up Star Wars numbers. He thought he was a hard worker in high school, but he learned quickly when he arrived on the Florida campus that the college game is far more complicated. The things he could get away with in high school don't work at the next level, especially in the Southeastern Conference where the teams are loaded with talent and speed. It didn't take long to figure out that he wasn't strong enough to beat physical defensive backs off the line of scrimmage and he didn't know how to block. He didn't know how to read defensive backs so that he could make the necessary adjustments in his pass routes.

"All these things came at me at once and I just wasn't ready," he said, "but really, that was the best thing that could have happened."

Challenged for the first time in his life, he made the conscious decision to use his practice time to get better and use the time with the strength and conditioning coaches to get physically prepared for a breakout spring practice. He studied the offense and came to the realization that he wasn't the only one slowed by a new system.

"Mostly, it's not the physical thing that slowed me down," he said. "Now I'm comfortable with the system and trusting in the system. That took awhile for me … I think for everybody. What I'm seeing in practice so far is that everybody is like me in that respect, far more comfortable with the mental aspects.

"I'm more comfortable mentally than I was last year. Opposed to last year when I was running every play, thinking about what I was supposed to do and trying to do it without making a mistake, this year I'm just running up to the line of scrimmage and doing it, reacting and not thinking about it. It's natural now but it wasn't then. I've learned to read the defenses, learned the schemes we're running and all the different things I'm expected to do. I feel like I'm a player now and that I'm ready to contribute to the team."

As he surveys the team through the first week of spring practice, he notices that things are far different than they were back during the fall. There is an air of confidence that was missing last year for one thing. Then there is that same problem that he had to overcome --- knowing and trusting the system well enough that it is no longer necessary to think through everything.

He also sees a different Chris Leak at quarterback. This is a confident quarterback that is comfortable with what he's doing this year.

"I think it's really two things that I see differently," he said. "One, it's what Coach (Urban) Meyer demands of his seniors and of his leaders and that's leadership and accountability. Chris Leak has to be the general on the field and he can be the general now because he has a year in the system and he can trust in what he's doing.

"The second thing is that most of the guys here realize that we really do have a great chance to win a championship and become a great team. Obviously, we've gotten some motivation from the basketball team to become a great team. I think a lot of guys on this team realize that it's time. We have a great group of seniors and a great core of guys that understand that 9-3 last year was really good, but we can be so much better than that. I think we realize it's time to go out there and do it."

Monday night, Nelson was sitting in the O-Dome watching Florida's basketball team dismantle UCLA for the NCAA championship. With every dunk, every blocked shot, every three-pointer or defensive stop, the crowd roared and by the time the clock started to count down, he thought the roof of the O-Dome was going to be blown off by the crescendo from the Florida student body.

Afterward, he walked from the O-Dome to 13th Street and back, watching Gator fans celebrate a national championship. If he didn't already know why he had chosen the University of Florida back in January of 2005, he did then.

"The celebration after the game goes beyond anything I've ever seen," he said. "I was walking around watching the celebration … people in tears because they're so happy … people hugging each other just because they're Gators. They say this is a football school but I couldn't tell. It was just Gators loving the Gators.

"The street was filled all the way from the O-Dome to 13th Street. I don't know how many people it was but it was unbelievable it was so many. This is why I came here … to play for championships, to play in an environment like this, to play for an unbelievable student body like this. I saw a great celebration after we beat FSU in football and it was great but then I saw this Monday night and it made me understand that if we won a championship in football, it would be just like this. I want to play for a school that's like this and for a student body that loves their teams like this."

When Urban Meyer was giving Nelson the sales pitch to come to the University of Florida, he constantly brought up the unique environment in Gainesville. He talked about how the community embraces and lives for the Gators and how the student body is as loyal and passionate as you will find anywhere.

"You have great people, a great community that really does revolve around the Gators and a great university," Nelson said. "I have a chance to get a great education at one of the best universities in the country and I have a chance to play for the Gators in an environment that's different than it is anywhere else. It really is different here from the quality of the education to the support for the teams on the field. Believe me, it's not like this at other places."

In his spare time, he often hangs around with his buddies Al Horford and Corey Brewer, two of the stars of the NCAA championship basketball team. Horford and Brewer are completely different personalities. Horford is quiet and thoughtful while Brewer always has a smile on his face.

"Al is a very good friend of mine," said Nelson. "He's a very quiet leader but you see him play and you see the emotion and passion. Corey plays like Hines Ward in football. You hit him, you knock him down and he just gets right back up with a smile on his face. You know it just kills the other guys when they see that. Corey just gets up with that big smile and he's ready to go. He never shows weakness."

He would like to see the football team develop the kind of closeness and all for one attitude that he sees on the basketball team.

"They do everything together on and off the court," he said. "They really are like a band of brothers. Maybe we can't be exactly like them because football is different but there is one thing we definitely can do. We can see what happens when a team learns to stick together and that should motivate us."

He has two more weeks of spring practice and then the summer to get ready for the 2006 season. He has three goals that he wants to accomplish before August.

"First off, I want to gain the respect of my teammates and coaches," he said. "That's the number one priority. Secondly, I want to become a more polished receiver and that means knowing the offense better than anyone else, becoming a dependable blocker that doesn't miss an assignment and a better route runner. Third, I just really want to be available for any holes that need to be filled. If they need me on special teams … anywhere, I'm there. Whatever the team needs, I'm ready to do it."

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