Defensive back Justis Nelson experienced a breakthrough season as a sophomore. Nelson was named an honorable mention to the All-Big 12 team and a First-Team Academic All-Big 12 performer. However, he didn’t find a permanent home in the Red Raiders secondary.
Nelson played both safety and cornerback last season. But where will new defensive coordinator David Gibbs use this fall?
“We’re going to start him at corner and teach him the corner techniques, because at least the first two days — maybe more than that — we’re just going to be in base defense with three linebackers and teach him to play corner,” Gibbs told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s Don Williams.
Nelson, who came to Lubbock as a three-star athlete, began his career at safety before switching to cornerback. Due to depth issues, he returned to safety. While the Red Raiders staff expects him to be a starting cornerback, Nelson will likely play some safety during the upcoming season.
“There are going to be times when he’s going to have to play safety, which I’ve done it (with starting cornerbacks),” Gibbs said. “I’ve had my starting corner in base be a safety in nickel and be the nickel in nickel.
“If he has the ability to go play safety and he’s better than my third safety, then I’ll move him to safety and bring those other corners in the game and let them play.”
Nelson’s length at 6’2″ and 179 pounds makes him an ideal cornerback, and he’s already shown the ability to close on the ball to make a play. The Mesquite, Texas, native led the team with 16 pass breakups, which was the school’s highest total since 2002.
However, his new coach hopes Nelson can turn those broken up passes into interceptions during his junior campaign.
“Justis could have had eight freakin’ interceptions last year,” Gibbs said. “He (then-defensive coordinator Mike Smith) put him in the right position. He could have. He didn’t. He’s got to catch those balls. If he catches those balls, it’s a whole different game.”
Whether or not Nelson makes those catches or not, he is still one of the team’s best defenders. The flexibility he provides in the secondary gives Gibbs plenty of options as he instills a new scheme to improve upon last year’s 95th-ranked pass defense.