Nelson’s patience paying off for Texas defense

Ross Burkhart

Three days after senior defensive tackle Chris Nelson was named a team captain by head coach Tom Herman, he answered questions during a media availability session on the ninth floor of Belmont Hall in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

After Nelson finished answering a question, one media member thanked him while walking away.

“Thanks, Poona,” the reporter said, mistakenly referring to former defensive lineman Longhorn Poona Ford.

Nelson laughed and said, “I get that all the time.”

It was an insignificant error, but it spoke loudly about Nelson’s role this season as someone out to prove he could fill the hole left by Ford, who left for the NFL during the offseason. 

This season, he’s answered the call. Through four games, Nelson has revealed himself to be one of the defense’s most valuable players and the primary option at the defensive tackle position for the first time in his career.

One person Herman contacted after naming the team’s five captains was Tommy Lewis, Nelson’s high school coach in Florida.

“I think Chris was very early on a standout, and that kind of makes his journey at Texas even a little bit more remarkable,” Lewis said. “Because another thing that happens to a lot of kids that are talented and not used to being a backup is that they have a tendency to get discouraged and sometimes even quit before they’re giving themselves a chance.”

Lewis said that Nelson was always the star for his high school, Victory Christian. He never had to share his spot as the main run stopper and even sometimes served as the team’s running back and tight end despite weighing “close to 300 pounds,” Lewis mentioned.

Nelson, now serving as a fifth-year senior, has shared duties with a string of other talented defensive tackles at Texas such as former Longhorns Desmond Jackson, Malcolm Brown and Hassan Ridgeway, in addition to Ford.

“I learned a lot from all the guys,” Nelson said. “Desmond, Malcolm and Ridgeway, they taught me the ropes when I was coming in here. When I got redshirted, I still had to travel and those guys taught me as if I was playing in the game.”

Nelson, who, like many players recruited under former Texas coach Charlie Strong, initially had apprehension about whether the Longhorns were still the right fit after Herman was brought in to replace Strong in November 2017, according to Lewis.

“I do know that there was, for a brief moment — like I’m sure a lot of his teammates did as well — thoughts of transferring,” Lewis said. “I’m sure he had questions for himself. ‘Hey, am I going to do well under this new leadership? Am I going to be able to continue to pursue my dreams of being a starter at Texas?’”

So far, Nelson has shown he’s fully capable of being a starter for the Longhorns, recording 13 total tackles and four for a loss of yards. 

Moving forward, he’s not looking for his performances to have any sort of drop-off.

“It’s been pretty good, to be honest with you,” Nelson said. “I just want to build off it. Me helping my team out in a great win just makes me happy. All I can do is get in and watch more film and go harder.”

Nelson isn’t the only one that’s been pleased with his recent performances, either. 

The mastermind behind Texas’ defense is defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who is a large part of the reason Texas has rebounded in recent weeks from a disappointing
season-opening loss against Maryland.

Although Nelson has been playing at a high level, Orlando isn’t ready to say whether or not the defensive tackle has matched the level of play shown by Ford last season.

“It’s close,” Orlando said. “I think Poona made some plays that were kind of twitchier that he could make in the backfield, but Chris is playing really, really well.”

Nelson has started strong, but now, Orlando is more interested to see what he can do during the rest of the season.

“One thing I will say about Poona is I thought he got better as the season went along,” Orlando said. “I think Nelly is playing at a high level, we’ll see if he continues. But it’s close.”