When Zion Nelson’s family says he’s “a whole different person,’’ they likely mean that there’s a whole lot more of him to love — as in 100 pounds more than he used to be as a 6-foot-something, 185-pound high school freshman.
Now, Nelson is a 6-5, 290-pound (280-285 after shedding daily practice weight) first-team left tackle for the University of Miami, and it seems more likely every day that he will be the first true freshman to open a season as an offensive line starter since current junior Navaughn Donaldson did it at right guard in 2017.
“I was just eating as much as I could,’’ said Nelson, who is scarce with words but abundant with athleticism.
Nelson was headed to Appalachian State before he flipped his commitment to Miami in December, just before early signing day. He played at 235 pounds last season at Sumter High School in South Carolina and has since put on about 50 pounds. Nelson’s emergence as the probable starting left tackle, despite his joining the Hurricanes as an early enrollee for spring practice, couldn’t have been on anybody’s mind, let alone his.
Nelson was asked Wednesday: Did you ever imagine as a true freshman you might be starting?
“No, not at all,’’ he said. “I was thinking I was really going to have to work, and I’d probably get tossed around a little bit.”
He likely is getting “tossed around’’ from time to time, but what better defensive end to go up against daily than Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award preseason candidate Jonathan Garvin, a defensive line gem who last season was fifth on the team with 60 tackles, had 17 tackles for loss, 5 1/2 sacks and two fumble recoveries.
“It’s definitely a struggle,’’ Nelson said. “He’s a great player.”
Has Garvin made Nelson better?
“Definitely,” the freshman said.
The Hurricanes had five different starting combinations on the offensive line in the first 10 games of 2018. If that isn’t startling enough, four Miami offensive linemen who started at times last season have departed: left tackle Tyree St. Louis, guard Venzel Boulware, guard/center Hayden Mahoney and center Tyler Gauthier.
UM ranked 104th of 129 FBS teams last season in total offense and 112th in passing offense.
“I think by the time we get there, we’ll definitely be ready,” Nelson said of the Aug. 24 season opener against the Florida Gators at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, where he will likely go up against 6-4, 246-pound redshirt senior and NFL prospect Jabari Zuniga. “It’s coming together. Like everything, we still have stuff to work on.”
During media viewing of fall camp, the Canes have pretty much been playing the same lineup in the offensive trenches, with a few changes here and there: left tackle Nelson, left guard Navaughn Donaldson, center Corey Gaynor, right guard DJ Scaife and right tackle Kai-Leon Herbert, though redshirt freshman John Campbell also practiced as the first-team right tackle this week.
UM offensive line coach Butch Barry said Nelson is “a kid that has been playing with effort and toughness.”
“No. 2,” Barry said of Nelson, “he’s got good athleticism and length. That’s a premium for a tackle.
“Our effort and toughness have to always be there. ... We have flashes of it and there were flashes where it wasn’t. We have to get that caught up to speed.”
Nelson, who has only raised his body-fat percentage to 14 percent from his previous 10, will continue being aware of his eating habits. He said he has been eating omelets with potatoes and juice for breakfast, and “whatever they have’’ at UM for lunch — sometimes he eats food from P.F. Chang’s — he said. He eats at UM’s “training table’’ for dinner.
“Most of the time they have grilled chicken and pasta. And at night, a lot of times I’d go to Subway,’’ as well as drink plenty of protein shakes.
What has Nelson done right to get this far?
“Just [worked] really hard and [tried] to be the best I can,’’ he said.
▪ Former first-team Parade All-American Bubba Bolden, who played as a freshman safety at Southern Cal and is listed as a redshirt sophomore after attending a junior college, has arrived in Coral Gables and watched practice Wednesday from the sideline. He will wear jersey No. 21 and will be required to go through the five-day NCAA acclimation period. Bolden, who played at Las Vegas Bishop High with UM quarterback Tate Martell and tight end Brevin Jordan, will be eligible to play this season, though he obviously has a lot of catching up to do.