Kevin Nelson can't contain his excitement. In a week, the Gainesville Sun's Class 6A-3A Player of the Year will be able to put pen to paper, sign his name on a National Letter of Intent and officially call himself a Miami Hurricane.
For Nelson, a 6-1, 215-pound middle linebacker, National Signing Day can't come fast enough. Neither can June 12th. That's the day he scheduled to graduate from Gainesville High. Three hours after he takes off his gap and gown, Nelson says, he plans to drive down to South Florida where he'll move in with cousin and future University of Miami teammate Demarcus Van Dyke. Soon after that, Nelson says, he plans on putting on an orange and white jersey with the number 52 on it. That would be the same number of his idol, Canes great Ray Lewis.
Ask Nelson where he'll be come the season opener in September against Florida A&M and he's got a prediction on that, too. He says he'll be starting at middle linebacker, on his way to the ACC Rookie of the Year award and leading the Hurricanes to a national title.
To say Nelson dreams big would be an understatement. But if you ask his coach, his family and his friends, the fact Nelson is making bold predictions about his future is a welcome relief -- because it wasn't long ago that Nelson wasn't sure where he was headed.
A troubled teenager, Nelson had trouble coping with the death of his mother, Bonnie Coleman, who died in 2002 after a long battle with brain and lung cancer. His biological father, Connie, who died last year from a stroke, didn't develop a relationship with him until he was older. Discipline and focus? It's taken time for Nelson to wrestle with that.
"It was crazy, man," Nelson said. "My brother was off to college so it was just me and my mother when I was little. My stepfather, when he was in the picture, was usually off to work. So, I'd come home and take care of my mom when she was sick. Sometimes, I wasn't able to do my homework because I was crying at night, trying to see if my mom was OK. It was hard. Things like that mess up a kid at that age. It takes time for them to learn how to be strong, realize that this happened for a reason. It was a battle. It still is to this day."
Nelson's battle became his aunt Shirley Williams' problem. Thankfully, he says, with his cousins off at college and plenty of room for him in her house, Nelson was able to grow up with plenty of support. He'd watch the Golden Girls with his grandmother, Irene Cudog, and his aunt, and iron out his behavioral issues. In a lot of ways, he says, he looks up to Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon, who grew up with plenty of his own family struggles. He considers the way both grew up "a deep bond."
"On Sunday, the last day of my official visit, we were talking about that," Nelson said. "He told me about how things were hard for him growing up, family members he lost. He told me situations like that prepare you for life, make you stronger. The way I see it, he never quit and ended up great. It took me some time to figure out how life is. In the ninth grade, I finally got control of it. I just turned a whole 180 degree turn and made some success in my life."
Now, Nelson says, he can't wait to go battle for Shannon. And the truth is, the Hurricanes might be stealing a superstar under Florida coach Urban Meyer's nose.
Nelson, rated a four-star recruit by ESPN and the third-best inside linebacker in the country, has developed into a far better player than most expected. He finished his senior season with 141 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and helped Gainesville High to its city championship since 1988. His coach, Ryan Smith, said Nelson and teammate/fellow UM recruit Devont'a Davis (a 6-1, 170-pound cornerback) are the two primary reasons why the program went from 1-8 to 5-5 to 10-2 and its first playoff victory since Clinton Portis was around in 1998.
"Great players make great coaches," Smith said. "Miami is getting great players. They led the way for us all year. Their leadership, work ethic and the ability to make plays is phenomenal. If you want to look at one game. Look at the win over Buchholz. We won 14-9. Kevin scored both touchdowns (interception and a fumble recovery) and Devonta intercepts a pass on a two-point conversion at the end of the game to clinch it."
Former UM recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt jumped on Nelson early. But if you ask Nelson, it was his persistence that got the Hurricanes to offer him a scholarship his junior year after the Gators passed and UCF and Arkansas were the only programs who bit.
"Before Miami even recruited me, I had to call them," Nelson said. "I called Ms. Cindy in the office and got coach Barrow's office number. I kept calling it and calling it until I got coach Barrow on the phone. After that, It just went from there.
"I told him 'I want to be the guy you can count on in fourth down situations, you feel me? Or, the guy you want to put it on his shoulders and be the leader -- the whole season -- of the defense. I don't want to give up no rushing yards, no passing yards and have the DBs and safeties moving, the d-line moving and linebackers making plays.' I told him I wanted to be that guy. He said 'Dang man, I really like the way you're talking.' After that, he fell in love with the way I was talking. I sent him film and two or three weeks later, coach Shannon offered me."
Nelson didn't have to sell himself his senior year. LSU, Florida, and a number of other SEC schools came looking for him. Although the offer to play for LSU "and beat UF every year" was tempting, the Hurricanes stayed on him hard. And soon, UM could be reaping the benefits. With Darryl Sharpton gone, the Hurricanes do not have a bonafide starting middle linebacker. Going into the spring, most expect senior Colin McCarthy to slide over to the middle and Sean Spence, Jordan Futch and Ramon Buchanon to eat up most of the snaps at outside linebacker. Nelson, the only middle linebacker in a class with five outside linebackers, could ultimately find his way into playing time if he catches on quickly.
"I feel like I'm the best linebacker coming in this class -- and I feel like with the guys I've been around and the knowledge I'm going to be receiving it will be something great for the University of Miami," Nelson said. "It's about time for Coach Shannon to get another ring on his finger. I told him I'm going to do everything in my power, with the last breath in my body to get him that championship ring."
A FEW MORE TIDBITS...
> You can never get everything you want into a story or a blog. I've uploaded the complete audio interview with Nelson to our UM audio section. If you are a Canes recruiting junkie and want to get pumped up about this class, check it out. Nelson has a ton of passion.
> Check out this A to Z segment with Nelson in the Gainesville Sun.