Reggie Nelson caught the two longest passes Eric Ainge threw Saturday night at Neyland stadium in Knoxville. He was Ainge’s first and last receiver on the night as he caught passes of 31 and 38 yards. Just one problem, though. Nelson is the free safety for the Florida Gators. Perhaps the Vols know why Gator fans respectfully call him Reggie Freakin’ Nelson.
Nelson is establishing himself as a legitimate All-America candidate this year but before he ever made it to the University of Florida campus, he was already something of a folk hero to Florida fans. Originally signed to play for the Gators back in 2003, Nelson had to take his skills to Coffeyville (KS) Junior College. After a freshman red-shirt, he earned junior college All-American honors and then two years after originally signing with Florida, he signed with the Gators once again.
Nelson red-shirted that first year in junior college so that he would have three years to play at the University of Florida. While in high school, some observers said that Nelson was the best high school player they had ever seen. During that second year in Kansas, his exploits on the playing field only made his legend grow. Because he was part of a huge recruiting war with FSU while he was in high school, his arrival on the Florida campus was one of the most anticipated of any Gator player in recent years.
Nelson came in last season and immediately solidified the secondary, starting out at nickel and then moving in as the starter at free safety. His big time instincts and speed helped cover up a few problems in a good secondary as he made tackle after tackle on broken plays. He was and is literally the Gators’ last line of defense.
Saturday’s game with Tennessee in Knoxville began with Florida’s last line of defense saving the day once again for the Gators. His interception sent a message to the Volunteers that going deep might not be in their best interests. A busted assignment left a Volunteer receiver racing down the right sideline unmanned. Nelson’s instincts took over as he donned his cape and made the play.
“The first play of the game I was in the middle of the field and reading Ainge,” Nelson stated. “When I turned I just saw an orange jersey just sitting. I just went to running. I was looking for Reggie Lewis because he was supposed to be underneath. When I was running over there their sideline was already jumping up and down and stuff … I was just running to him [the receiver] and I just looked back up and it [the ball] was right in my face.”
Nelson dove in front of the receiver and picked it off as he landed on his back. His play ended the Vols’ first offensive series after only one play. But don’t ask Clark Kent … oops, Reggie Nelson to pat himself on the back. He just made the play he was supposed to.
“Reggie (Lewis) made a mistake and that is what I am back there for,” said Nelson quite modestly.
Although he thinks is play was no big deal in itself, he does understand the significance of starting the game with a big play on defense and the signal it sent to Tennessee.
“If they scored first we would have been in a dogfight worse than what we were in,” Nelson said. “If they scored it would have given them some big momentum and the crowd would have been in it too.”
On this night, neither Superman nor his teammates were perfect. He missed a few assignments and the secondary was pushed to their limits. His last interception was on fourth down and the Gators would have had much better field position if he had just batted the ball away. He just couldn’t help himself, though. He is a play maker. His teammates knew the situation, however, and they let him know about it.
“Everyone did … I didn’t realize it till I came here and watched film,” Nelson said. “We played pretty good as a group but we have a lot to work on. We need to work on angles, technique and stuff.”
Meanwhile Reggie Freakin’ Nelson does what he always does. He leads the team in interceptions and he allows the Gator defensive coaches to play an aggressive and attacking style of defense knowing that he will be back there to cover up any mistakes. Nelson already has three interceptions on the year, but to him it is just another day at the ballpark. He just comes to play.
“I don’t have a goal, I just come out and play ball,” Nelson said. “I just continue to come out and play my game.”