Iowa State faced third-and-seven from its own 37-yard line, holding on to a 6-0 lead over Texas in the second quarter. The crowd of 96,851 demanded another defensive stop to keep the Longhorns’ struggling offense in the game.
And it got it.
Sophomore defensive tackle Chris Nelson shot through the Cyclones’ offensive line and wrapped up redshirt sophomore Jacob Park for a 3-yard loss, igniting a thunderous ovation from the bleachers of Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium.
Nelson’s sack came at a crucial point of the contest as Texas looked to break a three-game losing streak. And even though it was Nelson’s first sack of the season, the sophomore from Lakeland, Florida, has been a critical piece on the Longhorns’ defensive line all season.
“Chris is coming along really good,” Strong said. “[He’s] really doing a really good job of just anchoring the defensive line for us.”
Nelson leads Texas in tackles for loss, bringing down opposing players behind the line of scrimmage five times this year. Nelson also ranks near the top of the team in tackles per game, and is one of the top tackling defensive lineman in the Big 12. For his efforts, Nelson has already been named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week once this season.
He entered the season with eight career tackles. He matched that mark in the season opener against Notre Dame and came close to hitting that number again with seven more takedowns against Iowa State.
Sophomore linebacker Breckyn Hager said the emergence of Nelson as a key contributor on Texas’ defensive line stems from his “unreal practice habits.”
“He will sprint almost the entire field chasing down a deep ball,” Hager said. “He will sprint [and] run around everywhere. And he’s so strong.”
Sprinting the length of the field isn’t easy for a guy his teammates and coaches refer to by the nickname “Heavy.” But at 297 pounds, he does it anyway. Hager said his work ethic embodies the type of person he is underneath the pads.
“He’s the type of guy you can call at 3 a.m., and he’ll be there for you,” Hager said. “I love playing with that man. He’s going to get more sacks this season, and he’s going to keep getting more tackles just because of his work ethic and who he is.”
Nelson’s work ethic didn’t land him copious amounts of playing time overnight. He redshirted in 2014 and only played in eight games last season, starting in zero. But his journey is proof that with a little hard work, results soon follow.
“I had a lot of players ahead of me [on the depth chart],” Nelson said. “So I had to take the back road a couple of times and just key in on things to better myself for the game.”
Strong told his players Oct. 10, following a crushing 40-45 defeat to arch-rival Oklahoma, that football is a very simplistic game, but sometimes his players think too much and make it much harder than it really is.
But Nelson is a player that never thinks too much. He said he always plays loose and has fun when he’s on the field. He saw some of himself in his teammates Saturday night, and the result was arguably the best defensive performance Texas has displayed all season.
“We just cut out all the thinking and played for one another,” Nelson said. “You got to be confident in yourself. [If] you know what you’re doing, you’re going to play the best that you can. You’re going to play fast.”