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Critical 20: No. 19 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.

Senior cornerback Justis Nelson is often maligned, but there can be little doubt about his importance to the Red Raiders in 2016. Nelson has been pegged a likely starter all along, but with the departure of cornerback Nigel Bethel, the likelihood is now a virtual certainty.

With 23 career starts to his name, Nelson will be Tech’s most experienced defender. And, given that Kliff Kingsbury has tapped him as one of the defense’s spokesmen to the public, it’s quite clear that leadership will also be expected from the Mesquite native.

But experience and leadership aside, what Tech most needs from Nelson is durability and solid play. Last season Nelson notched 44 tackles, two interceptions, four pass breakups, and six passes defended. Nothing about that stat line is particularly impressive or terrible. The reality, however, is that improved play from Nelson is a must.

At 6-foot-2, Nelson certainly has the length to be a blanket on the outside. He also flashes good ball skills at times, as was shown in his win-clinching interception against Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl his freshman year. 

Photo By Steven Chapman
That said, Nelson still has work to do. He hardly has the blazing speed that is so helpful for cornerbacks tasked with covering the incredibly fast and athletic receivers that cycle through the Big 12 on a yearly basis. Nelson can make up for the lack of great speed, at least partially, through savvy play, deep understanding of the receivers he faces, and psychological toughness. Former Dallas Cowboy great Everson Walls is the classic example of such a cornerback. Nelson can also make himself a solid cornerback by refining his technique. Proper footwork and turning the hips fluidly will help him in coverage because with his slight frame, he won’t often be jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. 

As of this writing, there are four pure corners who will likely see most of the snaps next season: Nelson, Paul Banks, Thierry Nguema, and D.J. Polite-Bray. (Tevin Madison will probably see more action at nickel and safety.) Additionally, true freshmen Desmon Smith and DaMarcus Fields will be given every opportunity to contribute.  And it must be said that there are question marks about all of those players. But Justis Nelson is the player who will most be counted upon to have a good season. 

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