Privately, the coaching staff felt Leidner’s blue-collar style better fit their offense. They liked Nelson and never had any problems with him, but they weren’t crushed, even when he landed at Rutgers, a future Big Ten opponent.
Before Nelson selected Rutgers, his father took him to Phoenix for a week of instruction from Terry Shea, who has worked with NFL quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III.
“He was extremely coachable,” Shea said. “We would meet in classrooms twice a day, and it seemed like he was right on top of it. He’s a very bright young man.”
Nelson picked Rutgers just in time to enroll in class so he could go through spring practice. Under NCAA transfer rules, he knew he’d have to sit out this fall, but he was widely expected to be Rutgers’ starting quarterback in 2015 and 2016.
“I love his attitude,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood told reporters during spring practice. “I’m excited for his future.”
When details of the assault emerged last Sunday, former Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray reacted on Twitter.
“Hope the news I just read on my timeline about my young buck isn’t true!” Gray tweeted, later adding: “I’m shocked. Never thought this amazing kid was capable of this.”
Gray switched from quarterback to receiver for the last seven games of his senior season in 2012, making room for Nelson to start.
When reached by phone last week, Gray declined further comment. He was among 13 former players contacted who either didn’t respond to messages or declined to talk. The Gophers kept their current players off limits. Even Nelson’s high school coach, and another prep coach who knows him well, backed out of scheduled interviews.
Nelson, through his lawyer, and his father both declined interview requests.
“I desperately wish we could tell you the details and the comments that were said,” said Kimberly Veroeven, mother of Nelson’s girlfriend. “No way are we going to do anything that would potentially jeopardize this incredible kid any more.”
Kill issued a statement four days after the arrest, saying simply: “What happened was a tragic situation, and I am sending my thoughts and prayers to all the families involved.”
Jamel Harbison, a wide receiver who had come to Minnesota with Nelson before transferring himself, said he couldn’t believe Nelson had been charged with assault.
“I basically dropped to my knees because this is a life-changing situation,” he said. “As soon as I found out, I called a couple [former] teammates, and they were basically shocked themselves, saying, ‘What? That’s not Phil.’ It’s just a situation where alcohol probably got the best of him.”
Back in Mankato, Nelson’s closest friends “still have his back,” according to Landon Brown, but many of last fall’s well-wishers have turned on his friend.
“All his No. 1 fans when Phil’s on top, everybody who wanted to be his best buddy, those people can’t stop bashing him now that he’s on the bottom,” Brown said.
He said he can’t look at Facebook and Twitter, angered about one post that claimed the fight was some kind of fallout between Mankato West and East, the two high schools Nelson and Kolstad attended.