With UConn in Scott Stadium in 2017 for his first career start, Virginia safety Brenton Nelson remembers waves of fear and doubt washing over him in the locker room.
After the Cavaliers’ 38-18 win, he was as jovial as he was relieved. There were no longer any questions in his mind as to whether or not he belonged.
Nelson began his UVa career with an interception in the end zone, two pass breakups and eight tackles. He parlayed that performance into ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Last season, he was second on the team with eight pass breakups.
“I’ve always set high expectations for myself,” Nelson said. “Our defensive backs have been strong, and we’re even stronger now. We have numbers, everybody has been together for a long time and it’s next man up.”
Last season, Nelson’s numbers took a small dip. He posted about 20 fewer tackles than in 2017, and after intercepting four passes as a freshman, he only picked off one as a sophomore. He did play through an ankle injury, which required offseason surgery, but his statistics don’t tell the whole story of his role on last season’s defense, which ranked No. 2 in the ACC against the pass (183 ypg).
Not only did Nelson roam centerfield in coverage, but when the Cavaliers went to their nickel package, he stepped down to cover the slot receiver.
“The difference between safety and nickel is how up close and personal it is. It’s almost like you’re on your own island,” Nelson said. “Nickel is probably the hardest spot on the defense.”
Senior Nick Grant stepped spent time at nickel cornerback this past spring and a host of young corners may find their way there this fall, including sophomores Heskin Smith and Germane Crowell and redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker. But Nelson will almost certainly find himself head-to-head with slot receivers again this season.
Some say it’s his specialty.
“Brenton is more the quick cover guy and I can come down and play downhill,” junior safety Joey Blount said. “When 1-versus-1, Brenton can jump on that and I can play the middle of the field. Or when needed, we can both play the run.”
Nelson and Blount are heading into their third season together. Blount said this offseason they were “rehab partners,” and they’ve developed a level of comfort and trust on the field that should keep Virginia’s secondary among the best in the conference again this fall.
“At safety, you have to coordinate the whole defense, and I think Brenton and I do a good job of communicating with each other and the whole defense,” Blount said. “On the field, hand signals can suffice. We can look at each other and signal so we can be quick to react. Off the field, we’re just a bunch of guys hanging out.”