Mark Barnes likes to call Zion Nelson a “throwback” player, but the coach really means Nelson is sort of a throwback personality. The offensive lineman has virtually no social media presence and kept his recruitment close to the vest. It made Nelson’s official visit with the Miami Hurricanes last weekend fly under the radar and Miami’s interest in him almost entirely invisible.
On Thursday, the two-star tackle from South Carolina became a somewhat surprising addition to the Hurricanes’ Class of 2019. The senior flipped his commitment from the Appalachian State Mountaineers to Miami with less than a week until the early signing period begins Wednesday.
“He’s almost a throwback player,” said Barnes, Nelson’s coach at Sumter. “He’s not a social media guy. He’s not a Facebook guy. He’s just a good old high school football player.”
Nelson’s game, however, is fits for the modern age. At 6-foot-5 and just 240 pounds, Nelson lives off his unusual athleticism. It’s what originally caught the eye of Appalachian State and some other small programs before schools from some Power 5 Conferences started to poke around this fall. Barnes said Nelson has seen some recent interest from Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten programs, including an offer from the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. None of those piqued Nelson’s interest, though, until the Hurricanes finally made arrangements to bring Nelson down to Coral Gables for a visit.
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Less than a week after he spent a weekend in the Miami metropolitan area, Nelson made his college choice — and he had to come to a conclusion soon. Nelson will sign his National Letter of Intent with the Hurricanes on Wednesday, then enroll at Miami next month. It will be critical to the lineman’s development as strength and conditioning coach Gus Felder can immediately get to work with Nelson. He’s a project, for sure, but Nelson could have serious upside if he fills out his frame.
“He’s an 18-month — at least — guy probably from playing,” Barnes said Friday, “but you put three pounds on him a month and all of a sudden he’s 295 and still going to be a great athlete. I think that’s what they saw with him, too.”
Although national interest in Nelson has never been significant, he has experience playing at a high level. The athlete started at left tackle for a 10-win team this fall, paving the way for the Fighting Gamecocks to run for more than 2,000 yards.
With the Hurricanes desperate to find offensive linemen — and particularly tackles — this recruiting cycle, a gamble on Nelson’s upside is worthwhile. Miami’s 2019 class had included three different tackles at various points until Citra North Marion’s Michael Tarquin, a four-star tackle in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, flipped to the Florida Gators on Dec. 3.
While Tarquin is certainly more game-ready than Nelson, the newest oral commit at least has athletic tools. Barnes said he regrets not giving Nelson more opportunities as a defensive end because he thinks the lineman could have thrived there, too, given his potential speed off the edge. The coach said he’s been clocked as fast as 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash. If he can carry weight, Nelson can be an intriguing developmental piece.
“I think they loved his athletic ability,” Barnes said. “This is my 30th year as a head coach. He’s by far the most athletic offensive lineman I’ve ever coached.
“Right now, he only weighs about 240, 245, but is a phenomenal athlete. I think they liked what they saw on film. We’re a physical football team, so I know they saw him being physical at the line of scrimmage and in the run game, and he’s got long arms and he’s going to be a really big guy before it’s all said and done.”