Steven Nelson has quietly been one of the best corners in the nation this season
When junior cornerback Steven Nelson enrolled at Oregon State in January, he was expected to compete for a starting job in the OSU secondary.
Coming from the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., Nelson was recruited by defensive backs coach Rod Perry two years after committing to the University of Georgia.
It only took him a few games to make his name known not only in Corvallis, but on the national level as well.
He quietly picked up his first interception late in OSU’s second game of the season against Hawaii before a breakout game the following week facing Utah.
His two interceptions cemented his playmaking credentials and helped slow down a Utes offense that, after the first quarter, scored on every possession in which it didn’t turn the ball over.
According to Perry, Nelson had always had the skills to make those kinds of plays.
“He got more familiar with our system and then his ability began to show,” Perry said. “He made a play and gained confidence, and then made another play.”
In the Beavers’ next game against San Diego State, Nelson made an impact at the most crucial part of the game, securing a game-winning interception return for a touchdown that allowed the Beavers to continue their winning streak.
After the victory against the Aztecs in week four, Nelson was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week and was tied for the national lead in interceptions with five. He remained in a tie for first place until week eight of the college football season.
“It makes me want to work harder and keep improving myself,” Nelson said earlier this season. “Statistically, those numbers don’t really matter; I just want to keep getting better.”
Last week, Nelson made the list of semifinalists for the Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s best defensive back.
While he has only one interception in the last five games and none in the last three, the recent dry spell of created turnovers may not be a cause for concern considering opposing teams are throwing the ball to his side of the field less often.
“He’s probably not getting as many opportunities,” Perry said. “The biggest thing for him is not to fall asleep when nobody is throwing at him.”
Nelson has gained the respect from other teams, but wishes they would test him more.
“It kind of sucks not getting those picks,” Nelson said. “But respect is respect.”
Nelson showed he can make a difference in games even without causing turnovers when OSU faced Colorado. Nelson flanked Colorado receiver Paul Richardson for most of the game.
Though Richardson was averaging more than 200 yards per contest at the time, he only had one catch for two yards through the first three quarters. Nelson was taken out late with the Beavers comfortably in the lead and Richardson then picked up 68 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
In addition to his consistent play at corner, Nelson could have an impact for the Beavers on special teams at some point, too.
Back in high school, Nelson had a knack for big plays in the return game.
He set a school record with 13 punt return touchdowns while at Northside (Ga.) High School.
“I think he’ll get the opportunity (to return punts) at some point,” Perry said. “He’s a competitive guy; he wants to be on the field and help us win.”
Junior receiver Brandin Cooks and senior cornerback Rashaad Reynolds have held down the returning responsibilities this season, but Nelson hopes to get a chance at the position before he graduates.
“Hopefully next year I get that chance,” Nelson said. “I’m just waiting patiently.”
Until he gets that opportunity, Nelson will focus on impacting games defensively like he has all season. His unique skill set has proven to be a valuable asset to the Beavers.
“He has a combination of size and speed,” Perry said. “He has football instinct, and he’s highly competitive.”
Josh Worden, sports reporter
On Twitter @WordenJosh