NORMAN — Hands down, the most improved player on Oklahoma’s defense last season was defensive back Jonathan Nelson. During his first three years in Norman, Nelson battled various injuries, which kept him on the sideline. And heading into last season, despite his intelligence and athleticism, again he was on the outside looking in on OU’s defensive back rotation. But late in the season, Nelson came out of nowhere to beat out Sam Proctor for the starting job at strong safety. Once in the lineup, Nelson proved he belonged. He picked off a pass in each of OU’s final three regular-season games and almost intercepted another in the Sun Bowl, but bobbled the ball into the hands of teammate Travis Lewis. Nelson, now a rising senior, is looking to build on his breakout season this spring. In an interview with The Oklahoman, Nelson spoke about what kept him on the sideline previously, what finally got him on the field and what he thinks of new Sooner secondary coach Willie Martinez: → You emerged out of nowhere to become a starter last season. How did you do it? "Over the summer, first off, I gained over 10 pounds, 13-14 pounds, and got to around 185. That was a big contributor to me actually being healthy for a change. I honestly feel one of the reasons for the injuries was my size. I missed my whole sophomore year because of a knee, and my freshman year, I had all kinds of injuries. Adding some weight made me more durable.” →What was it like going into last season, when it looked like you would be on the bench again? "I was confident with the guys we had out there. But I felt I was being overlooked. As far as the injuries, I felt like I could have done more than what I had done. I felt like I had that ability.” →Once you got onto the field, you made plays. It seemed you were going to do whatever it took to make the most of your opportunity? "You only get to live once. You understand that more and more after all the mess I’ve been through. Sort of, whether it was my fault or not, I wasted three seasons here. I felt like once I actually got the start, I wanted to make a big explosion. Maybe not be an All-American, but I wanted to make some kind of noise to help out the defense, try my best to do my role, and do it to the best of my ability.” →You were a lifelong corner. How did you get switched to safety last year? "Around two-a-days, I mentioned it to (secondary coach Bobby Jack) Wright, that he should move me to safety, that I didn’t weigh 170 anymore. He didn’t believe me. But literally, I bugged coach Wright for about three-four weeks. I stopped, but then the next week, he put me at safety. Midway through the season, I sort made of the transition of feeling like a cornerback playing safety to a safety playing safety. It didn’t feel awkward anymore.” →With you guys losing both corners, there’s been some talk you may be moving back to corner. Which would you rather play, corner or safety? "I like how you get to roam at safety. You can make a lot of plays, have your nose on the ball. But if you can show the versatility to play both, that is a pretty marketable asset. Really at the end of the day, whatever the coaches want I’ll play. If they want to see me at safety, I’ll play there. If it’s corner, I’ll play there, too.” →Is it ideal for your defense to have two of the young guys step up at corner, so you can remain at safety? "That would be great. Right now, we have guys capable of playing cornerback. Without the game experience, your first thought is that these guys aren’t ready. But they are. Jamell Fleming, Lamar Harris, Gabe Lynn, Demontre Hurst, Marcus Trice, all those guys can play corner.” →You lose both starting corners from last year’s defense, and Gerald McCoy up front. Is this defense capable of being as good as last year’s? "I feel like we’re capable. Whether or not we step up and play tough enough is yet to be answered. But we are definitely capable. We lost two really good safeties two years ago in Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes, and everyone questioned our secondary. But we wound up having a good season in the secondary.” →What is the single biggest thing this defense needs to resolve to get to that level? "We need to define leadership. A lot of guys are going through plays. But losing Gerald and Ryan Reynolds, we’re looking around for the team captain. We need to define leadership, and realize each practice we need to get better. That will take care of the leadership.” →What are your impressions of new secondary coach Willie Martinez? "So far, I feel like he’s an extension of Coach Venables. He’s really animated, gets worked up, gets right in your face. I don’t think any one of us would want it any other way. There’s not a question Coach Martinez can’t answer. He’s really open to his players, wants us to call him if we have a question or need something. Whenever you have a coach like that, that’s begging you to succeed, you just want to do good and want to work hard.”
Jonathan Nelson→High school: Summitt
Noteworthy→Named All-Big 12 honorable mention by the coaches last season, despite only starting four games. →Picked off a pass in each of OU’s final three games of the regular season. →Made All-Big 12 Academic second team. →Clocked in with a team-best 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash during winter conditioning.