Walk-on to walk away: Nielsen transfers to Sacramento State
Derek Nielsen signed full-ride scholarship to play at Sacramento State this fall
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 7, 2013 00:03
Sophomore offensive lineman Derek Nielsen announced a month ago that he would be transferring to Sacramento State.
Transfers happen for many different reasons. In the case of Malcolm Agnew, he saw his playing time reduced at OSU and saw a better opportunity with Southern Illinois — where his brother plays fullback — to be the starting running back.
For Nielsen, it was a different story.
The walk-on from Sheldon High School in Eugene — who was also looking at a full-ride scholarship from Montana State and a walk-on role with Oregon before deciding to walk on at OSU in 2009 — found himself with a bigger role in the team by the end of his third season (he redshirted his freshman year).
He had the versatility to play center, guard and tackle on the offensive line, and was usually the go-to guy to replace a starter if one got hurt. When junior guard Grant Enger suffered a leg injury late last season, Nielsen made his first career start against California, and started again the following week in the Civil War against Oregon.
With spring practices beginning in the first week of April, he had a legitimate shot at winning the starting right tackle position vacated by graduated senior Colin Kelly.
“He had a good opportunity here to continue to move up in the depth charts,” said head coach Mike Riley. “He’s definitely a smart player . . . he’s played all the positions on the front line and that’s a valuable commodity.”
But being the valuable commodity he was last year but going three years playing without any financial support from the team prompted a question after the season ended.
“I went to the coaches and asked them if they had a scholarship open,” Nielsen said. “They said they didn’t, that they were basically out of scholarships.
“I was a little upset, but at the same time I understood where they were coming from,” Nielsen added. “It was hard to understand . . . but it is a business. They have other recruits to look out for, too.”
College football teams have 85 full-ride scholarships to dole out, and unlike other sports, there are no partial scholarships.
“It’s a juggling act,” Riley said. “We not only have our current team to deal with, we have our future teams. We go through the evaluation and we’re making offers and trying to sign the upcoming class.”
Riley usually is able to give a scholarship to a walk-on at least once per year, but it almost exclusively happens in their senior season. Andrew Seumalo, Clayton York and Brian Watkins are recent examples of senior walk-ons who were granted a scholarship in their senior years.
Once Nielsen knew the scholarship wouldn’t be an option, he was granted a release by Riley to look at other schools.
First, he contacted Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington.
A week before National Signing Day on Feb. 6, he received a call from Sacramento State, a team OSU fans are familiar with after the Hornets upset the Beavers in overtime in the first game of the 2011 season.
“They said, ‘We really like you here. We think you’d have a fit. Seeing some film, we think we could use you at a center or guard position,’” Nielsen said.
In what he called the “hardest decision of his life so far,” Nielsen signed with the Hornets on Feb. 7, and will receive a full-ride scholarship to play for them.
His parents and brother — who is a senior at Sheldon and will play baseball at Oregon next year — all live in Eugene.
“I have roots here,” Nielsen said. “Now I’m going to a city where I don’t really know anyone.”
From a football coach’s perspective, Riley wanted Nielsen to stay in Corvallis, but he also knows this presents a chance for Nielsen, who still has two years of eligibility left.
“When something like Derek’s deal comes up and he’s got a chance to get a scholarship at another place, you feel bad about losing him, but at the same time you feel good for his opportunity,” Riley said.
Sacramento State’s head coach, Marshall Sperbeck, was once the quarterback at Oregon State back in the late 1970s.
“He’s a lot like Coach Riley — a stand-up guy,” Nielsen said. “Their O-line coach seemed knowledgeable and knew what he was doing.”
Since Sacramento State is a Football Championship Series school, Nielsen will be able to play this fall. He hopes to win a starting spot on the offensive line with the Hornets.