Critical 20: No. 9 Justis Nelson

Like any football team, Texas Tech has several players whose performance will be particularly critical to the squad's success. These players, whether by virtue of experience, leadership, importance of the position played, depth concerns, or sheer talent, are especially crucial. They may or may not be the best players on the club, but they would be very conspicuous were they absent for any reason.

Perhaps the best way to conceive of the critical players is to determine if they are the performers the team could least afford to lose.

With this series, we will take a reverse order look at the Red Raider football players we consider most invaluable.

Texas Tech Critical Twenty
Gary MooreDERS FRClarksville, TX6-5245No. 20
Rodney HallRBSRAngleton, TX5-10240No. 19
Donte PhillipsDLJRMilwaukee, WI6-2280No. 18
DeAndre WashingtonRBJRMissouri City, TX5-8190No. 17
Bradley MarquezWRSROdessa, TX5-11200No. 16
Baylen BrownOLSOSan Antonio, TX6-4305No. 15
Micah AweLBJRArlington, TX6-0200No. 14
Ryan BustinKSRKilgore, TX5-11180No. 13
Rika LeviNTJRSan Francisco, CA6-3350No. 12
Keenon WardSSOSnyder, TX5-9195No. 11
Rashad FortenberryOTSRTylertown, MS6-5285No. 10
Justis NelsonCBSOMesquite, TX6-2170No. 9

Lightning appears to have struck twice for Texas Tech when it comes to recruiting defensive backs out of Texas' private school ranks. In 2009 Mike Leach signed a somewhat obscure recruit out of Austin St. Stephen's Episcopal by the name of D. J. Johnson. The former high school quarterback avoided a redshirt and played extensively in his first season as a Red Raider, serving notice that he would be a major contributor throughout his collegiate career. And indeed he was.

Four years later, in 2013, Kliff Kingsbury signed Justis Nelson, a prospect recruited also by Air Force and Harvard, from Dallas Christian School in Mesquite.

It certainly looked as though Nelson was headed for a redshirt, but injuries mounted up in the Tech secondary and the gangly youngster was thrown into the fire against Oklahoma State.

Nelson, and the rest of the Red Raiders, took it on the chin that evening, but Nelson would blossom very quickly and ultimately start three games. His interception with 3:35 remaining in last year's Holiday Bowl sealed Tech's upset victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils. Just as Rodney Hall's touchdown grab in this game portends a major future role for the fullback, so too this interception could be the beginning of big things for Nelson.

According to defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, Nelson isn't blessed with incredible speed, but you'd never know it watching him play. Late last season Nelson developed into a black and red shadow draped across opposing receivers. Some cornerbacks just have the natural ability, with our without elite speed, to squeeze receivers like an anaconda, making life miserable for the receiver and the quarterback attempting to throw to him. Nelson could become that type of cornerback in 2014.

Size is certainly one of the secrets to Nelson's early success. At 6-foot-2, he may be the tallest starting cornerback in the Big 12, and for receivers used to towering over corners in the 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-11 range, Nelson's length and reach is surely disconcerting. He also has the instincts and football smarts that ensure he will not only improve over the course of his career, but improve over the course of individual games as well. Nelson will be a better cornerback in the fourth quarter than in the first.

Just as it has been a long time since Tech has had a truly dominating linebacker, it is equally certain that the Red Raiders have long done without a real shut-down cornerback. One might have to go all the way back to the mid-80s when Lemuel Stinson played, or even to the days of Carl Carter in the early-80s to find such a player. Hopefully, Justis Nelson will be Tech's best in a very long time. It looks like a distinct possibility.

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