In addition to wide receiver David Nelson, instrumental in reestablishing Rider as a football power was head football coach Scott Ponder. Ponder, who previous coached Nelson at Petrolia high school, was hired by Rider a little over a year ago. Ponder's coaching expertise, along with his unparalleled ability to recognize and develop talent, is what led to Rider's success last season.
"Last year we were 7-5,"said Ponder. "We had a pretty good year. We won our first district championship in 21 years. We wanted to build off the momentum of last year. I think we are committed to that. We got in the weight room and improved our overall physical strength."
Like Ponder, Nelson also recognized and understood the importance of getting stronger.
"We needed to become more physical this off-season," said Nelson. "Our offensive line got man-handled last year, and as for myself, I needed to become more physical coming off the line."
The off-season did see the Rider team get stronger. Players routinely lifted weights with the understanding that the goals of this season are greater, and desire to win a state championship will take physical stamina.
"Our goals are to play deep in the playoffs." Said Ponder of the team goal. "We want to also win the district again. Winning a state title is also a goal. This is really tough to do in Texas because you have to win six playoff games to win a state title. It's a lofty goal, but I think we've put ourselves in a position to do that"
Ponder's formula for success has worked so far this season. The Raiders are currently 4-0 and they have positioned themselves for another district title and playoff appearance.
For the Raiders to continue to their winning ways, and meet their goals, Ponder realizes the importance of capitalizing on his team's strengths.
"Our strengths are that we are deep at the skilled positions. We have a lot of talent at wide receiver, talent at the quarterback position, and have talented defensive backs.
"The pressure is going to on our talented athletes. We have to get the ball in their hands. At the same time we have to be smart about playing guys. Our weakness is our depth, and that's why we have to be smart about playing guys."
Nelson is one of Rider's star athletes who will be expected to perform. The 6-4, 200-pound receiver will be expected to use his size and aggressive receiving style to guide the Raiders back to the playoffs. After improving his game this off-season, Nelson is confident this will happen.
"I lead by example," said Nelson. "After last season I noticed I needed to become more physical with the defensive backs. I watched film and noticed that the defensive backs were getting their hands on me. I've noticed from watching the film this year that I've gotten better.
"I also worked with my brother and a quarterback this summer to improve my skills coming off the line. I also hit the three-man sled. I thought about taking some martial arts classes, but that didn't happen."
Ponder believes that Nelson's game has progressed as well. He has seen Nelson develop into his first Division I player, and transform himself from a player with above average size and ability, to perhaps the best wide receiver in Texas.
"Ever since I first saw Nelson I thought he had a chance," said Ponder. "He had the ability, size, and a lot of talent when I fist say him play.
"He also makes clutch plays. Besides for being a super person and an extreme athlete, he has a great work ethic and makes clutch plays. Regardless of what time it is in the game, David excels in front of pressure. This is why he is so valuable."
Teams have noticed Nelson's ability to change the momentum of the game with one play. Consequently, Nelson has received double or triple coverage during in each Raider victory. Coach Ponder has recognized this, but understands the importance of always having his team and Nelson ready.
"David plays a huge role for us. He is a huge factor and he can't have a bad night," Ponder said. "Other teams do a lot of things to try to take him away, which makes it tough. But we have to be ready. When the other team lets their guard down we have to strike."
Making plays is also something Nelson plans to be doing at Notre Dame. Once on campus the Rider star will focus on helping Notre Dame return to glory, something he desires to be a part of.
"I committed to Notre Dame because I felt comfortable there, the academics are great, and the opportunity was too good to pass up," Nelson said. "Also, the program is heading up, and I want to be a part of getting them back to where they are supposed to be."
Nelson's familiarity with helping teams return to prominence will help him at Notre Dame. With Ponder as his coach, Nelson has helped reshape the Rider program.
Currently, Notre Dame has a player who, like Nelson, has brought hope to the Irish faithful. That player is Darius Walker. If Nelson can have the impact Walker is having at Notre Dame early in his carreer, the future looks more than bright. It looks promising.