State of the Hogs: Pride and Joy

Jerico Nelson

Can Ohio State run over Jerico Nelson? Arkansas linebacker wants to play big in return to Big Easy.

Jerico Nelson was like the kingpin coming home. Big people all around him asking questions. What about taking his teammates through the streets of his old home, The Big Easy? What about stopping big Terrelle Pryor, the massive Ohio State quarterback?

Nelson is the Arkansas strong linebacker. Or maybe he's a safety. Or maybe he's the "jack" linebacker, the specialty guy in defensive coordinator's nickely packages.

Nelson grew up in the New Orleans area and finished high school at Destrehan, just west of the city on the I-10 corridor. He drew the biggest media crowds when the Arkansas defensive leaders came to the press conferences on Saturday.

Robinson gave him the biggest compliments when he was asked to give some detail on the six Arkansas defenders in the media breakout room.

"Jerico, he's my pride and joy," Robinson said. "He's what we call our bell cow. I compare him to a lot of guys I coached in the NFL. He's got a great heart, great FBI (football intelligence) and if you can get him in the flow real quick in a game our team plays off of him."

The only problem is Nelson doesn't look like a kingpin. He doesn't look like a returning hero. He looks like a cornerback. He's listed at 5-10, 214 pounds, but that probably was last winter after a few months bulking up in the weight room. He looks more like a 200-pounder these days after the wear and tear of an SEC season.

The play that stands out in the mind of many this past season was the image of Cam Newton bowling over a tiny Nelson in a goal line front at Auburn. Nelson took that hit flush and went backwards. If the Hogs are lucky, that's the image the Buckeyes will take to bed with them Monday night. That will be a huge mistake.

Nelson plays bigger than he looks. Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino calls him one of the smartest players he's ever coached. He studies game tape, knows his foe and makes plays that most would not predict. He's worked hard to become an every down linebacker in the Arkansas base, instead of the specialty Jack linebacker.

The play teammates recall from the season came in the second overtime against Mississippi State. No, not the one in the first overtime when Nelson knocked the ball loose on the goal line, a fumble that ended that threat by the Bulldogs and prolonged the game.

No, it was a running play in the second overtime, a play that made the highlights tape the next week and ran over and over as teammates cheered. It earned Nelson a "sledgehammer" sticker for his helmet and applause from coaches.

"They pulled their big guard from the backside, a 345-pounder," Robinson said. "We blitzed Jerico into the hole. He hit the guard straight on. Blew him up. Knocked him out of the game. We stopped the play cold. It was some kind of play.

"Jerico probably gave up 140 pounds to the guy on that play. He hit him square and dropped him."

Defensive end Jake Bequette remembers.

"Yeah, that one was huge," he said. "They ran their bread and butter play with their back. And Jerico hit that guard and smoked him.

"We get to see highlights tape the Friday night before the next game. We saw that one quite a few times. It was the kind of play you expect from Jerico."

Middle linebacker Jerry Franklin loved it.

"We know what he's going to do," Franklin said. "Jerico doesn't look very big, but you better not underestimate him because of his size.

"That play was typical Jerico. We watched that one on the highlight tape the next week and you say, 'Here comes that big guard. Here comes Jerico. Boom.' Coach kept rewinding it and showing it again. We all yelled each time he hit him. Knocked him out of the game."

Bequette said it ended the game.

"Really, they were running the ball in that second overtime until that hit," Bequette said. "They had run that play and then Jerico just hammered the guy. That set the tempo for the second overtime. We get the sack right after that on fourth down. We score. The game ended pretty quickly after that play."

Nelson couldn't hold back a smile Saturday when a reporter brought it up.

"Oh, yeah, one of my favorite plays of the season," Nelson said. "I got a kick out of seeing it on tape.

"I think that play meant a lot to me. Coach Petrino had talked in the offseason about whether or not I was ready to be an every-down linebacker in our scheme, or a specialty player. The question he put to me, 'Can you hold up when a guard pulls and comes down on you?' That was that play.

"In my mind I proved to Coach P that I could be that player. I think it's a play that showed that I can play for 60 minutes in our defense. I think I proved that to him and my teammates."

Robinson said there are times he talks to Nelson to make sure he's ready for those collisions.

"It's a David vs. Goliath thing for sure," Robinson said. "He's going to be in those type matchups. I talk to him in the meeting room about those type situations.

"You watch film and I tell him, this is the way they are going to try to come after you. I definitely try to motivate him for those type situations.

"It's a fly on the antenna type thing. And we see him make those plays against bigger guys. But the one at Mississippi State sticks out the most."

Nelson loves to lead by example in those situations. He's someone teammates look up to on the field. They looked to him in New Orleans, too.

"Yeah, I grew up here and I know the area," he said. "I tried to take them a few places, but there are some places that I told them we won't go. You don't want to stick out down here. You can see the city, but I've tried to educate them on how you see it.

"I think they listened. You look and you handle yourself in the right way, you are going to be alright down here. But there are some things I told them you just can't do and some places you just skip."

Franklin said Nelson gave them a quick tour of Bourbon Street early one night.

"It was interesting and I'm glad I saw it," he said. "But we didn't stay long and we got out of there."

It wasn't New Year's Eve.

"Naw, we were all in our rooms early," Franklin said. "Curfew was 11 p.m. and we were all much earlier than that. I didn't make it to midnight. I said I was, but I didn't. I remember sending someone a text at 11:50, saying that's it. Don't remember after that, so I think I was out."

Kinda like that Mississippi State offensive guard.



Jerico Nelson filled up the cameras Saturday at the Sugar Bowl media conferences.



Jerico Nelson plays big for a little guy.



Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said Jerico Nelson is his "pride and joy."

Photos by Zac Lehr

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