BURNABY — Jason Nelson is adamant about wanting to carve out his own identity, but as the new guy getting ready to take his share of hand-offs in the offensive backfield of the Simon Fraser Clan, he admits that embracing a snappy nickname which pays homage to an NFL great is never a bad thing.
“They guys all call me Mini-Marshawn,” begins Nelson, a 5-foot-8, 185 pound redshirt junior running back of his handle, one which so perfectly encapsulates the style and attitude made famous by Marshawn Lynch (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) during his glory days with the Seattle Seahawks.
“In my eyes, I just see myself as Jason Nelson,” the 21-year-old transfer from California’s San Joaquin-Delta College adds. “I’m just trying to build a name for myself. I worked my butt off just to get here. But I like how the guys hype me up with (the nickname). It give me a lot of extra energy.”
As a long off-season and fall camp gave way to Friday afternoon atop the hill, there was a palpable feeling of anticipation in the air as the Clan prepped for its final workout ahead of Saturday’s season opener, a 3 p.m. non-conference clash at Terry Fox Field against Salem, Ore.’s visiting Willamette Bearcats.
“The hay is in the barn,” first-year head coach Thomas Ford said. “Our kids have had a great week of practice and they are looking forward to getting the chance to play somebody else. They’re ready to be on the same sideline cheering each other on.”
LAST CHANCE TO DANCE
Having teammates? Getting the opportunity to play football again?
As winter gave way to spring and recruiting for the 2018 season was beginning to wrap up, Nelson wondered if even hoping for these basic gridiron staples would be too much to expect.
“It’s March and I’m back home (in the central California city of Tracy), and this entire recruiting process is just so stressful,” Nelson remembered. “Couple of months of no phone calls and you have to start to face reality. I was starting to look for jobs in general labour back home.”
Luckily for Nelson, however, a direct message on Twitter that he sent as something of Hail Mary to Ford resulted in some very quick match-making.
“He sent us his Hudl link,” Ford remembers of clicking on-line to view Nelson’s highlight tape. “It took us about 15 minutes to get him on the phone, and to start getting plane tickets ready for him to come and visit us.”
Yes, Ford had still taken the logical first steps of adding freshmen high school running backs as the process of building depth at the position was well underway.
“But we also knew we needed an older player,” says Ford. “We needed someone now.”
Nelson honed his chops at hometown Tracy High, in the state’s San Joaquin Valley, playing within the Bulldogs’ wishbone offence.
In 2015 he spent a redshirt season at Fresno City College, returning home to Tracy after just one semester. And then he spent the past two campaigns at nearby San Joaquin Delta College, last season enjoying modest success with 72 carries for 340 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games for the CCCAA’s Mustangs.
Now, however, the hope is that Nelson is able to assume a job description he has never held at any other point of his football career, and that’s as a team’s featured running back.
It’s no secret that as the Clan’s losing streak has grown to 33 games, and that Simon Fraser has struggled to find a balanced look on offence.
Throughout former head coach Dave Johnson’s NCAA era, from 2010-13, SFU basically produced a 1,000-yard back each season.
From Gabe Ephard’s 941 yards in 2010, to back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons by Bo Palmer (1,219 in 11, 1,021 in 12), to Chris Tolbert’s 1,050 in 2013, the Clan running game regularly sat among the GNAC’s upper crust.
SFU wants to get back to that same semblance of balance, and although it’s tough to author turnarounds overnight, Nelson could be the guy to help the program gain some traction.
“I think Jason is a guy that is very capable of being a 1,000-yard back,” says Ford, himself a running back during his college days at Linfield. “He’s a guy on our team who can carry the ball 20-to-25 times a game, get you a bunch of tough yards and catch the ball. So I think he’s going to get his money’s worth up here.”
That will be great news for senior quarterback Miles Richardson, yet so much will depend on the running-blocking savvy of a young but talented Clan offensive line.
The intangibles? Start with both his heart and his head for the game.
“A good running back wants every play to be a running play and I think Jason has that mentality,” begins Ford. “He wants those carries. He wants the ball in his hands. He wants to control the pace of the game.”
Yet he’s just as cerebral.
“One thing we learned really quickly during his recruiting visit is that he is a student of the game,” adds Ford. “He got a chance to sit in on one of our meetings and he was almost starting to coach the guys we had here in the spring on what to look for. He understands football more than just what direction to run.”
Like we said, his nickname is Mini-Marshawn, and thus his compass always points North-South.
“I would just say that my style is running down hill,” Nelson says. “But I did pick up a little more speed in the off-season, and I am balanced back who can run and catch, and I’m starting to add some little jukes here and there.”
Adds Ford: “When we saw his skill set, it just really fit what we do being a spread-type offence. You need a guy with good vision who can stick his foot in the ground, get his shoulder pads square, break a tackle, then out-run you.”
For Nelson’s part, everything becomes real Saturday afternoon. At times over the past calendar year, it’s seemed surreal.
“I am still surprised I am here,” the youngest of three brothers admits. “If coach didn’t call me back, I would be back home right now doing general labour. I am lucky and I am also juiced because my mom had three boys really young, and I know she would love to go back to college. So that’s why I am here. I am doing what my mom loves.”
And part of that involves staring down one of the biggest challenges in all of college football.
“Honestly,” Jason Nelson says without blinking, “I am ready for this challenge…because life ain’t easy. I mean, it’s going to hit you in the face no matter what. I’m ready.”
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