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Walk-On Takes Spotlight, Not Mike, For Cougs’ Defense

Sat., April 19, 1997, midnight

File this under the heading of faulty research, but it wasn’t until after talking to - not with, but to - Todd Nelson that we learned the nickname he’s acquired playing football at Washington State.

The Mute.

On the prowl for information and insight - or, most conveniently, sources whose quotes simply write the story by themselves - it’s prudent to reach out to certain types. The glib. The gabby. The self-promoting. Anyone called “Neon.”

Of course, not everyone can be Neon.

Somebody has to be Recessed Lighting.

Now, in Todd Nelson’s case, the beam of celebrity has been recessed so deeply it brings to mind a penlight in a mineshaft - and it’s mostly his doing. He is the anti-glib, the silent type - though it’s a shy, flustered silence, nothing hostile. Questions are regarded with embarrassed resignation. Answers beyond yes and no seem to require some special apparatus. Modern technology would upgrade “The Mute” to “TDD.”

“Aw, he’s not that bad anymore,” insisted Bill Doba, Wazzu’s defensive coordinator. “Once you get to know him and with all the players around, he’s actually pretty comical.”

Naw. What he is, mostly, is ironic.

Unsung and unspoken, Todd Nelson has inherited the focal position on the Cougars defense: middle linebacker, the spot that’s produced more pros and all-conference Cougs than any other in the past decade. Where Mark Fields and James Darling lined up, where Anthony McClanahan played, where Tuineau Alipate and Dan Grayson and Mark Ledbetter toiled, now comes Todd Nelson.

“He’s our guy right now,” said Doba.

And Nelson? He’s trying hard not to say too much about either his predecessors or his prospects.

“If I tried to fill anyone’s shoes, I probably wouldn’t fill them too well,” he said. “I just want to see what I can do and hope that good things happen.”

Further evidence will be available at WSU’s annual spring game at 3 this afternoon at Martin Stadium in Pullman, though it may not be any more conclusive than what’s transpired in the Cougars’ other spring scrimmages.

“He’s playing really well,” Doba reported. “Either that or our offense isn’t any good. I prefer to think of it as Todd and our defense playing really well.”

So, naturally, do most Cougars. After the total flameout of 1995 and the narrow frustrations of ‘96, they’re ready for redemption. Until injury and academic circumstances scrambled the defensive line this spring, the Cougs’ only question marks appeared to be in the offensive line and at linebacker - spots at which coach Mike Price sought junior-college help.

In both areas, it looks as if he’ll have to go with the help that was on hand.

Corey Scott, the JC linebacker the Cougs recruited, “has good feet, but he’s got to get stronger,” according to Doba. The other middleman is freshman Austin Matson.

“Right now, if Todd were to go down, I don’t feel like either is ready to play,” Doba said. “We’d probably move Brandon Moore in there. Whatever the situation, we’re going to play the three best linebackers we’ve got.”

And at the moment, Todd Nelson is one of them.

Nelson himself is trying not to be surprised at this development because “I want to be confident. I’ve got to have a sense that I belong.”

But he is what he is. A one-time walk-on. In some alignments Price can put out there, the slowest defender on the field. An underdog.

In some respects, the ultimate Coug.

Certainly he is here because he wants to be. He was mostly unrecruited coming out of Hazen High School in Renton in 1993. Montana State and Idaho State sniffed, “but nothing came of it,” Nelson said. We were tempted to ask if it was because he wouldn’t make an oral commitment, but we let it pass.

Instead, he showed up in Pullman where his father and brother both went to school - and didn’t attend a football game all fall.

“Probably because I missed it so much,” he said. “I really didn’t know what I was doing. Everytime I walked past the field, I’d look at it and think about what I was missing.”

So the following spring, he decided to find out. During one drill, assistant coach Jim Zeches needed a body he could throw in at strongside linebacker “a dummy,” Nelson said, “a person to hit. He said, ‘You look good.’ And there I was.”

He played a year with the Cougars greenshirts, the scout team. In the fall of 1995, he was walking up the steps to the first practice when Zeches stopped him to sign something.

Scholarship papers.

Four games into the season, Johnny Nansen was hurt - and there was Todd Nelson, playing linebacker against national champion Nebraska. So how daunting could it be to open the upcoming season against UCLA and USC, back-to-back?

“We’re not going to ask him to do some of the things our other middle linebackers did,” said Doba. “With McClanahan, for instance, we didn’t really take on blockers - he would just fake and run through the gap. Todd is bigger and stronger and he’ll try to take on linemen and defeat blocks and run to the football. I don’t know if he has that burst where he can fake under and then accelerate outside.

“But he’s surprised me this spring. He’s covered a lot better than I thought he could and he’s playing a lot stronger. He’s certainly taken to the challenge.”

You might call that walking the walk. Talking the talk, well, that’s never been Todd Nelson.

, DataTimes MEMO: You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, ext. 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, ext. 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review



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