Critical 20: No. 11 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 not be the best players on the club, but they would be very conspicuous were they absent for any reason.

If the Petro scrimmage is any indication—no sure thing to be sure—Texas Tech’s cornerbacks could be the team’s most improved unit.

That could be the case even if one subtracted starter Justis Nelson from the equation. What’s more, such a mathematical operation could well transpire if the Red Raider safeties are not up to the job. All of this supposition and speculation only highlights Nelson’s importance to the squad.

Strictly as a cornerback, Nelson proved his worth and mettle in 2014. He started 11 games, recorded 44 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two fumble recoveries, 16 passes broken up and 16 more defended. For his efforts the sophomore earned honorable mention All-Big 12 notice.

But as effective as Nelson often was as a cornerback, he was at his most impressive in the season-ending game against Baylor where injuries pressed him into duty as a safety against the powerful Baylor passing attack. He tallied seven tackles, a half tackle for loss, and two pass breakups against the Bears. Best of all, Nelson held up well in run support, tackling surely and not avoiding the big hit despite being the slenderest guy on the field on just about every play. He showed real mental and physical toughness in that close loss.

At this point there’s little doubt that Nelson can play safety in the Big 12 and play it well. And with the depth Tech appears to be building at cornerback David Gibbs may be tempted to slide Nelson over at some point. Aside from Nelson, promising performers in the form of Tevin Madison, Nigel Bethel, D.J. Polite-Bray and Jah’Shawn Johnson comprise a corner quartet that could be pretty doggone special.

Nelson’s primary value, therefore, could be his versatility. Wherever Tech needs help in the secondary, Nelson is capable of filling in capably. And as Red Raider observers know better than just about anybody, injuries are as sure as death and taxes by the time November rolls around. If you don’t have depth, you’re done for. Justis Nelson not only provides the defense with a skilled player, but also a good deal of insurance against the very real threat of attrition.

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