Usually we have to convince our interview subjects to sit down and talk with us for a half hour. When it came to former Florida Gators now Buffalo Bills wide receiver David Nelson, he had nothing but time while in the middle of a 22-hour drive from Buffalo, NY, to Dallas, TX, and in desperate need of some entertainment.
Catching up with him 14 hours into his trip somewhere in Memphis, TN, OGGOA spoke with Nelson about everything from his family growing up to what he thinks about new Gators head coach Will Muschamp and the future of quarterback John Brantley. He was honest and candid, as expected, and gave us a good look into the journey from high school star to solid college contributor to NFL undrafted free agent.
Nelson hauled in 46 receptions for 630 yards and seven touchdowns during his Florida career. As a rookie with Buffalo in 2010, he matched half that total with 31 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns (in consecutive games).
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: You’re one of eight children…where do you fall age-wise and what was it like growing up with so many siblings?
DAVID NELSON: “I’m actually the oldest of eight. Growing up there was only three of us – me and two of my younger brothers. My mom and dad were together and it was just us three. We were always real close, always competed and always playing sports and video games and trying to beat each other. We would fight and argue like brothers do, but looking back I cherish those times with my brothers more than anything. I always had a friend and brother to play with, always a partner to go out and do stuff with. It wasn’t until my mom and dad got divorced and both of them got remarried and had extra kids. My mom had three extra kids and my dad had two extra kids. My youngest sister right now is like three years old.”
AS: Christmas and Thanksgiving must be interesting then…
DN: “It is. It is. It’s a lot of fun though. It keeps it interesting and it keeps it fun.”
AS: What was it about Florida that made you decide to attend there over Notre Dame or staying in-state with Texas?
DN: “Growing up I never really knew much about Florida. I had seen them on TV every once in a while, when they were playing a bowl game or playing Florida State or something like that. I was never really a big fan growing up. I was from Big 12 country, so I grew up a huge Texas Longhorns fan, I watched all the Big 12 teams. When the recruiting process started, I didn’t hear anything from Florida. [Ron] Zook was there, didn’t hear anything from him or from his staff. Florida wasn’t even a consideration for me, never crossed my mind.
“When the whole issue with Tyrone Willingham getting fired [from Notre Dame]… I talked to Urban Meyer a little bit while he was at Utah, liked him a lot, but didn’t really feel comfortable going to Utah. When he accepted the job to go to Florida, he called me up and said, ‘Hey, I know you didn’t like it at Utah. What do you think about Florida?’ I was like, ‘I’ll research it, see what it looks like.’ The more I researched it, the more I learned about it, the more I liked it. I got a good feeling about it. [It happened] kind of late in the process, because it wasn’t until after the All-American game I started talking to him and took a visit up there. Got in town with my family, my family loved the community.
“I felt right with the coaching staff. I felt comfortable with the offense they were putting in. I knew that there was going to be something special that was going to happen there, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be one of the first recruiting classes to come in with them, because I knew Coach Meyer was going to be successful.”
AS: What were the first three years with the Gators like with you not getting much time on the field? Did you feel discouraged at all?
DN: “It was tough. It was real tough. An 18-19-20-year old kid coming in from high school, being heavily recruited, you automatically assume you are going to come in and you feel like you should be up for the Biletnikoff Award your first year on campus. When you’re a young kid, you buy into all the hype. You’re just really excited of what is going to happen. You come in and redshirt, the next year you sit on the bench, the year after that you sit on the bench again and you do get discouraged. You have all these people telling you how good you are, all these people from different angles saying you should be doing this…and you start to believe all the hype and all the cousins and the uncles calling you and you start to agree with them. You start to get these negative thoughts.
“The thought had crossed my mind of transferring; we actually pursued it a little bit. My dad and I sat down and looked at some options. Coach Meyer told me to just think about it and get back to him. The more I thought about it, the more we researched, I realized I came here for a reason – I came here to be a part of something special. At that moment we were on the cusp of being a great program. We had just won the National Championship in Arizona, and we were on the cusp of being great. At that moment, I knew I came here, I started something. I’m going to see it all the way through. I’m going to stick to my word and I’m going to ride this out, see where it goes and where it takes me.”
Read the rest of our exclusive interview with David Nelson…after the break!
AS: In 2008 almost half of your receptions were for scores. That includes the game- sealing touchdown in the National Championship game. How did you turn it around?
DN: “A lot of people attribute my success towards the end of the year to Tim [Tebow]’s The Promise speech, the speech he gave at the end of the Ole Miss game. That had a lot to do with it also, but there’s something deeper that nobody really knows about.
“The week before that we played Miami, and I was a situational guy, I came in every once in a while. Towards the end of the game, I remember we threw a bubble screen to Brandon James. I was just going through the motions and said, ‘I’m a good blocker. I’m just going to go up there and get the block and everything’s going to be OK.’ I went to make the block; the guy ran right past me and blew up Brandon James. Blew him up. It’s a pretty non-important play of the game, and not many people realize it, but it was very important to me.
“The following week my [position] coach, Coach [Billy] Gonzales at the time, was real big on blocking and really big on the blocking aspect of a receiver’s game. He told me, ‘Listen, if you can’t block, you can’t do that. You can’t protect your teammates, you’re not going to play for me.’ The following week I didn’t play one snap against Ole Miss. It killed me. I really took that as a learning tool, and I think that moment – when I was standing on the sideline against Ole Miss – I wasn’t able to play. I knew why I wasn’t playing. The coaches didn’t trust me. The players didn’t trust me. And the fact that we lost the game, seeing how crushed the guys were in the locker room, and knowing I had no impact on the game whatsoever.
“It changed my life. It changed the way I approach the game. It changed the way I respect the game. It changed the way I prepare myself for games. You can see that, as soon as that happened, I changed my whole outlook on the game. And it changed my career.”
AS: Talk to us about making the touchdown catch in the championship to put Florida up two scores and ice the BCS title.
DN: “We had been practicing that play all bowl camp. Coach Meyer is big on trust. He trusts you to put you in situations; he puts you on the field in certain situations [where you can be successful]. If that game would have been 6-7 weeks before, I would have never been in that position. Fortunately, I was able to gain their trust and gain their confidence during the prior weeks of the SEC Championship game, the Florida State game, the last half of the season. With the way I played and my production on the field, they were able to gain confidence in me.
“It just so happens that was the call at that moment. It could have easily been in the first quarter or second quarter, it just so happens it was at that moment in the game. It was a play Coach Meyer was confident in and a play that we executed very well in practice. My heart was beating 95 miles per hour the whole play. The whole 20-second experience is blanked out of my mind for some reason. I blacked out or something happened that I can’t really remember that exact moment. I do remember running out to the field and Coach Meyer looking at me and saying, ‘Go win the game.’ For him to say that to me at that moment, I knew I couldn’t let him down and I couldn’t let the team down.”
AS: Had Buffalo – or another team for that matter – given you an indication prior to the draft that they might select you? What made you to decide to go there as a free agent?
DN: “I had talked to a lot of coaches actually. My individual statistics in college were not great by any means for a prototypical NFL receiver. They want you to have at least 100 career catches – if not 100 at least a solid senior year. I had like 25 catches my senior year. My production in statistics wasn’t great, so there were some question marks. What really helped me out was the Pro Day I had; they could see some of the intangibles. That really got a lot of attention. I was hearing from a lot of coaches, and I wasn’t expecting it, but I was hearing anywhere from fifth-to-sixth round. When it came down to it, they didn’t feel like they needed to draft me; I’d still be available after the draft. I wasn’t surprised, but Buffalo and Seattle had been calling. A couple teams had been calling.”
AS: A lot of players drafted late or signed as undrafted free agents claim the latter is actually the best case scenario. You get to choose your team and situation, for example. Do you agree with that sentiment?
DN: “I think so. Definitely in my situation. A lot of times teams will use a sixth- or seventh-round pick based on potential. They could have 11 receivers on roster, but if there’s a player they’re interested in, they’ll draft him to take him off the board so they can have him. I was able to research depth charts, offensive schemes, offensive coordinator styles, styles of offense, how many times they throw the ball. I was able to research all that and make a top 10 list of teams that I felt like I fit the best. So when I wasn’t drafted, I was able to take my pick out of those teams, whichever was the best situation for me. Obviously the money isn’t as good; it’s better when you’re drafted. But in the long run, I was able to make the roster because of the research I did.”
AS: Seems like you made a great decision as, in your first NFL season, you have had almost as many receptions as your final two years of college combined. We know you loved your time at Florida, but did you feel a bit under utilized compared to what you are accomplishing at a professional level?
DN: “I wouldn’t say I was underutilized. We won two National Championships. We won two SEC Championships. We were very successful with what we did, and the coaching staff obviously knew what they were doing. I was there to catch the ball and did whatever I could to help the team. I was a great blocker; they used that to their advantage and put me on the point of attack a lot and as a perimeter blocker. I was fine with that. As long as we were winning, I was fine with that.
“It developed me mentally. It developed me as a team player. I stopped focusing on the statistics. It helped me realize the appreciation I had for the entire game. I learned how to catch passes, run routes for other receivers to get open, block for receivers. It gave me a complete appreciation for the whole game as opposed to just myself catching the ball. I was very appreciative of that because I think it’s helped me in the NFL now. Because I had such a long journey to get to where I am, now where I’m at, I’m mentally strong and mentally prepared because of what I went through at Florida.”
AS: What has it been like not only getting the opportunity to play in the NFL but to actually contribute on a game-to-game basis? You had three-straight games with touchdowns including another one the same stadium as your National Championship score. That has to feel really good.
DN: “I hear people talking. People will say stuff like, ‘He’s only on the roster because he’s on a weak team.’ If you look at our receiving corps, we are not weak by any means. We had a great offensive year. The second argument I have for that is, ‘Yeah, you can make the team. You can make the roster. But you still have to compete against other teams. You still have to go against the best defensive backs.’ I was still able to do that and be successful. You still have to go out and produce. You have to get open and catch the ball, and I was able to do that this year. I had a great time. We had a solid year, and it’s only going to get better.”
AS: Was it exciting yet strange playing against so many of your former teammates your rookie season? [Editor’s note: Nelson played the New England Patriots (three teammates), Cleveland Browns (Joe Haden), Cincinnati Bengals (Andre Caldwell), Pittsburgh Steelers (Maurkice Pouncey), Minnesota Vikings (Percy Harvin), Chicago Bears (Major Wright), Jacksonville Jagaurs (two teammates), etc. this year.]
DN: “It was a special deal. I loved it. It’s not like that everywhere. Not every college has that. Pretty much every team I played has one of my old teammates on it. Week in and week out, I look at the opposing team’s roster and I see, ‘Florida.’ Every week I was playing against an old teammate. It’s a special deal. You’re excited to go see these guys you’ve spent so much time with and you’ve gone through so much with. To come there, share your experiences, talk to each other about it before the game. I was out stretching talking with Major Wright, seeing how life was going. We talked about the Gators a little bit, obviously, and reconnected a little bit. It’s amazing to see them be successful and do what they’re doing on a much higher stage. It’s fun to compete against each other, have fun with each other, trash talk on the field a little bit and do some things you weren’t able to in college. It’s a special thing. I look forward to it every week, and it’s something I really enjoy.”
AS: Now here’s the obligatory Tim Tebow question.
AS: You obviously caught passes from Tim for a few years at UF, and I’m guessing have seen a little of what he’s done so far this year. What do you think about his future in the pros and how his game translates?
DN: “I wasn’t able to watch him play this year just because they happened to play the same time I did. I did see some highlights and stuff. I will be shocked if he’s not an All-Pro quarterback at some point leading his team to Super Bowls. I would be shocked. Just because the competitor he is, the leadership qualities he has. I will be shocked. Just because I know he’s a winner. He’ll do anything it takes to win. If somebody says he can’t do something, he will prove them wrong. If he continues to work on his game, continues to study, continues to be the student of the game he that he’s always been – because he loves the game so much and respects the game. He puts so much into it, and I know he’ll get just as much out. I think he’s going to be very successful, and I think you’ve seen some glimpses of that this season.”
AS: What did you think when you first heard about Urban Meyer stepping down for the second time and how do you feel about it now?
DN: “I really wasn’t surprised. I was [in Gainesville, FL] for the Mississippi State game and got to talk with him for a little bit. Got a chance to reconnect with him, spend some time with him and pick his brain a little bit and see how he was doing. I wasn’t surprised. When the decision came out, it wasn’t big news to me. I knew it was only a matter of time because I know how much he puts into it.
“I know every second of every day he’s so consumed with the team, the players, their lives, how they’re living and how they’re handling their business. It’s just consumed him the past 10-12 years he’s been a head coach. His health has been affected by it. He has a great family that loves him and supports him, and I think he just missed that whole aspect of it. When he took some time off this past offseason and got away with his family and got away with his wife, I think he realized how much he’s been missing that. He was able to take a step back and say, ‘This is what I could be doing. I could be spending this much time with my family, being a part of their lives and just enjoying life.’ I think he took that vacation and got something out of that.
“All that effort he gives, he couldn’t really do it anymore. For health reasons, obviously, and whatever else is going on with him. I wasn’t really surprised, but I am happy for him. I wish he could be there to impact lives like he impacted mine. So he could develop young men and develop players to be the best players they can be. College football will miss that. At the same time, I’m very happy for him and I’m happy that he’s happy with his decision and he’s at peace with that.”
AS: Do you think some of the negative things that have happened to the program – arrests and off-the-field issues – do you think those impact him more on a personal basis than most people realize?
DN: “Yeah, I think so. The arrests and stuff we’ve had, the run-ins with the law some of the players have had, have eaten away at him. People don’t see it because we handle a lot of stuff internally, but he gets eaten alive. He puts so much trust and so much effort into these kids. He’ll bring in a player and try to change their lives, try to mold them to be young men of character. He teaches them core values and really tries to develop them as men. He puts a lot of effort into that and spends a lot of time with these guys. A lot of time and effort. And when they do something like [that], he kind of feels let down. It just wears at him. The past few years it has been even more so because of the time he’s been spending with them. He’s gotten to know these kids and knows they’re good character people, knows they’re good kids. And then they make poor decisions that just eat at him and wear at him, and I think it finally got to him.”
AS: Being from Texas, do you have any unique insight on new head coach Will Muschamp or an opinion of how you think he’ll do with the Gators?
DN: “I have a lot of friends who go to school at Texas and a lot of friends back home who still follow Texas, and everyone I talk to has nothing but great things to say about him. He was obviously the head coach-in-waiting there for a reason. Mack Brown is a great coach, a great master of college football. For him to hand-pick [Muschamp] as his successor speaks volumes. I trust Mack Brown. I trust Jeremy Foley. Coach Meyer obviously agrees with the decision. I put my faith in those three guys. I have to think their wisdom is pretty credible based on their history. I trust them. I’m exciting to get down there and meet him. I’m excited about what he can do for these guys. He’s going to be a breath of fresh air and a new, different attitude. He seems young and intense. That’s what this program needs right now.”
AS: You said you caught as many Florida games as you could. Were you surprised about how the offense played and specifically how things transitioned with John Brantley as quarterback?
DN: “I was because I was able to get to know Brantley and watch him in practice. I got to watch him grow as a player and mature. It’s not all his fault. I’m still a big Brantley fan. I still have 100 percent confidence in him. I know what he can do and have seen him do it. He just has to translate that over from practice to the games. You go and watch him in practice and he looks like an NFL quarterback. He’s hitting guys in stride. I think he needed this year to get the speed of the game down and get the game experience in him. He’s got a great mentor coming in with Charlie Weis who has tutored some of the best. He’ll be able to pick his brain a little bit. Charlie will show him some things he needs to do a little bit better, and I think he’s going to benefit from that. I have the utmost confidence in what John Brantley can do, and I’m really excited for him this year.”
AS: Have a New Year’s resolution?
DN: “No, I don’t. [Laughing] I don’t really do that stuff; I never have. I see people do that a lot and they never hold up to it. I have some goals for myself this offseason and the next few months. There’s some stuff I want to do individually. But I don’t have any specific resolutions.”
AS: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and good luck the rest of the way to Dallas.
DN: “That was the fastest 30 minutes of this whole drive. Made it a lot easier.”
Photo Credits: Reuters, David Duprey/Associated Press
» OGGOA Interviews: QB Danny Wuerffel | ESPN’s Erin Andrews | ESPN’s Erin Andrews II | DE Alex Brown | QB Tim Tebow | WR Percy Harvin | F/C Al Horford | QB Shane Matthews | TE Cornelius Ingram | DE Jermaine Cunningham | S Major Wright | LB Earl Everett | F/C Chris Richard