By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Every rep Chandler Nelson guts out in the weight room, every exhausting stride he takes on every balmy run he endures, the West Point offensive lineman hears the words of his doubters echoing through his head — you'll never play Division I or Division II football. Stick with JUCO schools because that’s as far as you’ll ever get. Don’t get your hopes up about playing in the NFL.
If those detractors think mere words could chip away at the morale of a young man determined to shine at the next stage, though, they're sorely mistaken. Instead, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound behemoth has absorbed the criticism and used it to light a fire, one Nelson can now fuel with the towering stack of letters he’s received from D-I, D-II and D-III schools all around the country.
“I’m not going to sell myself short or let anybody tell me I can’t,” the Warrior senior said of his possible pro aspirations. “I’m going to say when I get there, if I’m dominating like I’m dominating here, I’m going to do what I can to get into the draft or get invited to a minicamp.
“But that’ll come years later. Right now, my main focus is to get to college first.”
And in order for prep football players to make the jump up to college campuses these days, they generally have to strut their stuff at camps, whether hosted by the schools themselves or recruiting websites like Rivals.com.
Since summer break began, Nelson has already attended five of these showcase events, making the sometimes short — but usually long — drives to various locales in the region, including Memphis, Samford, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana-Lafayette and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He spent this past weekend at Murray State (Ken.), has a trip planned to Jacksonville State this next week and will wind up heading to about 15 different schools by summer’s end.
Like most teenagers, Nelson does have a job. He works at the Parks and Recreation Department in Vinemont when needed — and when he isn’t traveling all across the southeast trying to further his football career.
“It is like working two jobs,” said Nelson, who finished in the top five at his position during a nearby invite-only VTO Sports camp put on by Rivals this past spring. “This is my job that I have to do.”
Part of that job consists of putting up with the hard work, competition and constant judgement that accompanies these camps, which doesn’t exactly sound like fun to the average kid. It’s been a blast for Nelson, however, who said he loves everything about the process thus far. Each time the recruit finds himself in the spotlight, Nelson treats it like an audition and performs at the only level he knows how — all out.
“The thing is, you’ve got to impress them,” he said. “You can’t do that by going half-tail. You have to go full or nothing at all. They want to see you gritting and grinding and being as precise as you can at the fastest pace you can.”
No matter the size or division of the program he’s visiting, Nelson can always expect to face off against defensive linemen — who are also trying to make their name — in a series of one-on-one drills. There’s a good chance he’ll also be presented with the opportunity to show off his reach, attention to technique and teachability, as well as agility and flexibility of his hips, two areas Nelson said he’s noticed coaches have increased emphasis on for linemen in the last year-and-a-half.
“It used to be a big kid, yeah, he’s mine. I want him,” he said of past convention toward O- and D-line recruitment. “Now, everybody is going to a faster-paced offense, so you have to be a big, athletic kid to be able to go play at the next level.”
Nelson obviously has the “big” part of that equation down pat, but he’s also worked dilligently to add “athletic” to his ever-growing rèsumè. It appears he can go ahead and copy and paste the attribute on there any day now, though, seeing as his time in the 40-yard dash has plummeted from 5.9 seconds to the 5.4-second range just since last summer.
The number of offensive linemen invited to each camp has differed at every stop Nelson has made, ranging from as little as 12 to as many as 40. It’d be easy for anyone to be intimidated by such a large number of big boys fighting for the same spot, but that’s just not the way Nelson rolls.
“You see some people, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty big kid,’” he said. “But then I look down at myself, and I’m a pretty big kid, too.
“Really, when you get there, it’s just the mindset of, I’ve got to have this. It’s me against him. Who’s getting the scholarship? Me or you? Whoever wins this play is going to get it.”
Whether it’s the travel, non-stop emails from coaches — Nelson has around 200 floating in his inbox, which includes invitations from top-notch programs like Florida State and the University of Southern California — or constant questioning from friends, family, teachers and others about where you’re going to land, the recruiting process tends to be rather grueling for any teenager. However, it’s been made easier for Nelson by his ultra-supportive parents, Becky and Shawn, as well as A.J. Lamar, the Warriors’ fifth-year head coach.
See, it hasn’t been all that long — well, 21 years actually — since Lamar was being recruited out of the backfield at Cullman High. He ended up signing with the University of North Alabama, where he starred as a fullback during the Lions’ back-to-back-to-back national title run (1993-95), raking in contacts from all over the football world along the way.
Those connections have come in pretty handy for a student-athlete like Nelson, who hopes to follow a similar path as his coach. Lamar has helped the hoss by calling countless college coaches and networking to set up visits that might not have otherwise been possible. Nelson said one of the only reasons he was invited to D-I Louisiana-Lafayette was because of Lamar’s relationship with coach Mark Hudspeth.
“I can’t put into words how much Coach Lamar and this coaching staff means to me for what they’ve done for me and my family,” Nelson said. “He’s really worked for me when he saw that I would work for him. The best thing about trying to get to college through him is he’s been there. He knows what the kids are going through, and he knows the coaching standpoint now, being a G.A. (graduate assistant) at UNA.
“He’s got all these connections with all these colleges from all over just because he was recruited. It’s crazy how he knows everybody, but he does, and it helps me out.”
In the two-plus decades since Lamar graduated from Cullman High, the recruiting landscape has undergone an extreme overhaul. “Back then,” as he referred to it, kids paid $300-400 to attend a three- or four-day camp, a stark contrast to the multitude of significantly cheaper one-day camps juniors and seniors have to pick from nowadays.
What hasn’t changed one bit, however, is the importance of every college hopeful finding some way to stand out even just the slightest bit more than their counterparts.
Lamar mentioned that one school he talked with only has room for two offensive linemen in its 2015 class — and plans to only search for the pair in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and a few other surrounding states.
“I don’t know what the future is going to hold for Chandler,” Lamar said. “There isn’t a lot of space for guys who want to go to the next level. You have no idea what those other guys are doing. That’s why I always ask him, ‘Are they beating you at this very moment?’ You’re not just competing against Alabama or Cullman County. It’s the southeast and nationwide. It’s a tough battle.”
Regardless of how difficult the process can be, Lamar feels Nelson has a couple of characteristics that set him apart from his competition. First, there’s the offensive lineman’s massive build, which could have a wee bit to do with the coach’s next observation — that Nelson is as “strong as all get-out.” The senior is currently benching 375 pounds and was stopped by Lamar at 560 pounds on squats.
The other pluses Lamar pointed out about Nelson were that he has a great family, is a hard-worker and is an ideal Christian leader. As a coach, though, it should come as no surprise Lamar was willing to offer Nelson’s biggest negative, too — “sometimes, he’s just too nice.”
It’s fine and dandy for Nelson to be the teddy bear he tends to be at school and with his family and friends, but when it comes time to step under the Friday-night lights, Lamar wants the sometimes-softy to know he has to “flip a switch.”
“He’s got to be more aggressive,” the coach said of Nelson. “That guy across from you is wanting to take your head off, and you have to envision him as bad as you can envision him. He’s the enemy and you want to destroy him. You’ve got to be a little nasty.”
Right now, the leaders in the clubhouse for Nelson’s services are Samford, Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Lafayette. He said he probably won’t make his mind up until National Signing Day, though, leaving a long time — Feb. 5, 2014, to be exact — for the light-hearted lineman to weigh his options.
“Those three have made the biggest impact, and I like them the most, but everybody’s in the race without a doubt,” said Nelson, who’s a right tackle now but is projected to be a guard at the college level. “Any offer I have, I’m going to go through it, pray about it and see what’s best for me and my family.”
Speaking of prayer, anyone who knows Nelson is aware that he’s not only strong on the football field, but also in his faith. He knows he’s had to work tirelessly to be the best player possible, but Nelson is also quick to admit he “wouldn’t be anywhere without Jesus.”
“I felt like he was calling me out here when the opportunity came up, and everything has gone pretty smooth,” said Nelson, who transferred from Vinemont to West Point in 2012. “That’s not because of anything I’ve done or my family’s done. It’s because of Jesus Christ.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.