On-the-job training

There's a reason the Tennessee Vols routinely turn high school safeties into strongside linebackers.

The strongside linebacker generally has more pass-coverage responsibilities than the weakside 'backer, so a background in coverage techniques is really beneficial. Just ask Tennessee freshman Robert Nelson, who DOESN'T have one.

Nelson played middle linebacker at Stone Mountain (Ga.) High School and is now getting a crash course in strongside linebacker play. Because of the amount of pass coverage involved, he's finding the switch a little more involved than expected.

"It's a lot different," the 6-0, 205-pounder said. "I never really had to drop back in high school. Most of the time they (opponents) ran the ball. When they passed, I usually blitzed. On this level there's going to be a lot of passing, so I'm going to have the responsibility of getting back into my drops on time."

Although dropping into pass coverage is a new experience, Nelson believes he's picking it up at a steady pace.

"I've been doing it pretty well," he said. "I'm young, so I've still got some things I haven't learned yet - as far as passing and where I'm supposed to go. I'm picking it up but it's been a lot of work."

In terms of run support, strongside linebacker isn't so different from the middle linebacker position Nelson played back at Stone Mountain.

"The only difference is the middle linebacker has more room to roam; I'd get from sideline to sideline," he recalled. "At strongside linebacker I have a specific job to do and one side to stay on."

Nelson was something of a sleeper when he signed with the Vols last February, even though he brought some glowing credentials. He was a two-time Georgia all-state pick by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who recorded a whopping 176 tackles as a junior and 151 as a senior.

He may not be heralded but Nelson is exceptionally quick. One thing he's noticed about Tennessee's practices, though, is that everybody else is exceptionally quick, too. That forces him to rely on instincts and technique a lot more than he did in high school.

"The biggest surprise has been the tempo," he said. "The game's a lot faster than high school. It's nothing I can't adjust to but I'd say the tempo is the biggest thing I've had to adjust to."

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