There is just something about Autzen Stadium. The friendly energy of thousands of fans in green and yellow is enough to make any Duck fan feel at home. Sure the spring game is technically the 15th and final “practice” of spring camp, but it sure felt like football season to me.
Just like in any game, there was some good and some bad on both sides of the ball for the Ducks. But, when referring to the player who actually played on both sides of the ball on Saturday, he was just plain good. Charles Nelson, who made the switch to defensive back this year to help add depth to the position, flat-out stole the show. Even Jeff Lockie‘s perfection — 9 for 9, 223 yards and three touchdowns — didn’t catch my eye like Nelson did.
Nelson showcased why he got so much playing time last season as a true freshman. On offense he was extremely explosive, catching a short pass from Lockie and bursting up field for a 52-yard score; and a few drives later, he hauled in a 46-yard pass for another score. He caught the ball well all day and was the most dangerous weapon on the field. He finished the game with five grabs for two touchdowns, and had a team-high 144 yards receiving.
His day wasn’t one-sided though, not by a long shot. Nelson played defense for the majority of the game for team Pathway, and showed the 35,808 fans in Autzen exactly why the Oregon coaches felt confident in him making the switch to cornerback. He recorded three tackles and looked like a receiver when he made the only interception of the game on a Ty Griffin overthrow. But that’s because he is a receiver, a receiver who might just be better suited playing defensive back full-time.
So what will the Ducks do with him? Does he start both ways? Does he play receiver and fill in at corner, or does he play corner and fill in at receiver? According to Tyson Alger, Oregon secondary coach, John Neal wants Nelson all to himself for now. “You can’t play sort-of on defense… I can’t have him just part time for where he is in the growth process,” Neal said. “I can’t see you for half a practice and expect the kid to beat the teams we play in our league.”
With so much talent at receiver, which now includes a healthy Bralon Addison, the Ducks can do without Nelson on offense altogether. I know taking a weapon like Nelson out of the offense is a crazy idea, but hear me out. If he was able to hold his own against arguably the best receiving corps in the Pac-12 after just 15 practices, imagine how good he could be defensively after summercamp wraps up. Of course he would still get a chance to make an impact offensively but the Ducks should just be more efficient in those chances by limiting his usage. Think of him as more of a secret weapon.
Also, if Nelson makes the full-time switch and takes strictly defensive reps in practice, that will open the door for the other young inexperienced receivers (Jalen Brown, Alex Ofodile, and receiver/athlete Kirk Merritt) to get more practice reps. And judging by Nelson’s performance on Saturday, he clearly understands the offense and the route combinations and doesn’t need practice time at receiver to be effective. Those reps could, and should, go to other players who need them more.
Another added benefit from making Nelson a full-time defensive back is that maybe, just maybe, opposing coaches will forget about him as an offensive threat, which will give him greater chances for plug-and-play success as a receiver. Ideally, Nelson will take about five offensive snaps a game in order to get him enough touches to make an impact, while also keeping him as hidden as possible from opposing coaches. And because it is much easier to jump in and play offense, especially at receiver with little to no reps in practice, Nelson will still be just as effective and explosive even without practice time at the position. Just throw him out there and get him the ball; his instincts and explosiveness will take care of the rest.
Nelson still has work to do before he will become a legit defender capable of covering some of the better receivers in the conference, but his performance on Saturday was definitely a step in the right direction for his development on that side of the ball. Success on defense will only come with improved technique and increased confidence, two things that can only happen with repetition and taking full defensive reps during practice.
Saturday was the first taste of football for Duck fans since January, and sitting in the third row of section 14, right by the 10-yard line and directly in the sun, I got chills as I watched our team take the field. Football is (almost) back in Eugene, and the mysteries of ”who will play quarterback” or ”where will Charles Nelson fit in” are getting closer and closer to officially being solved.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline