When Philip Nelson left the Gophers in January 2014, his goal was to find a more passing-centered offense.
All this time later, Nelson finally has found one at East Carolina, where he completed 28 of 32 passes for 398 yards and five touchdowns in his debut last week against Western Carolina.
While it’s only one game, he leads the nation with an 87.5 completion percentage, and his new coach, Scottie Montgomery, keeps raving about his character.
“We knew Phil was going to be special,” Montgomery said. “It’s been a long time since he played. He handled his emotions. He dealt with it all week. He prepared. That wasn’t shocking to us.”
But the journey for Nelson has been complicated.
It’s been five years since analyst Tom Lemming rated him as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback recruit in the nation out of Mankato West. He completed 50 percent of his passes for the Gophers, over 18 games, and battled Mitch Leidner for playing time.
After transferring to Rutgers and showing promise in spring practice, Nelson was back home in Mankato that May, when he was involved in a fight that left Isaac Kolstad, a husband and father, with brain damage.
Facing felony charges, Nelson pleaded guilty to misdemeanor fifth-degree assault. Three doctors had testified there wasn’t medical certainty that Nelson’s kick to the head had caused Kolstad’s brain injury. Surveillance video shows Kolstad pushing Nelson to the ground and a third man, Trevor Shelley, punching Kolstad in the head, dropping him to the pavement before Nelson’s kick. Shelley has since pleaded guilty to first-degree assault.
With a civil suit pending, Nelson has said little publicly about the incident.
“This is a couple seconds of my life,” Nelson told WCCO-TV in January 2015. “It doesn’t define who I am. I just know that … I’ve got plenty of life to live. Anyway I can share my experience and help other people learn from my mistake, that would be something that I would really look forward to doing.”
Determined to resume his career, Nelson was headed to South Alabama last year before those plans fell through. Finally, last August, he walked on at East Carolina.
He sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules, as the Pirates fell to 5-7 after a span of eight bowl appearances in nine years. East Carolina fired coach Ruffin McNeill, replacing him with Montgomery.
In his previous coaching stop, Montgomery ran a pass-oriented attack at Duke. For his offensive coordinator at ECU, he hired Tony Petersen, the former Minnesota assistant who had success with quarterback Bryan Cupito.
Despite their overall struggles last season, the Pirates ranked 27th in the nation in passing offense. They have six of their top seven receivers back, including Zay Jones, who made 98 receptions last year.
After battling for the starting quarterback job with Nelson this spring, Kurt Benkert transferred to Virginia. So Nelson, who turns 23 on Sunday, has the job to himself as a senior. Last week, he wore a beard on game day, with long, brown hair flapping from beneath his helmet.
Western Carolina is a struggling FCS program, so East Carolina was expected to roll in the opener. The Pirates will get a stiffer test Saturday at home against North Carolina State. Nelson is just savoring his first game action since 2013.
“You learn a lot about life going through that,” Nelson told the Associated Press. “To be able to come back here and meet these players and coaches and everyone in this community, it’s reassuring to me to know that people do appreciate and like me for who I am, and not the person I’ve been made out to be.”
• College football has found a terrific opening week formula with all the marquee matchups over the holiday weekend. ESPN announced that 81 million viewers tuned in between Thursday and Monday night’s Ole Miss-Florida State game.
This was almost better than bowl season, with each team still undefeated. Wisconsin-LSU, for example, would have been another ordinary Citrus Bowl or Outback Bowl, but from all accounts, the atmosphere at Lambeau Field was electric.
• Gophers followers might want to set the DVR on Saturday. Penn State plays Pittsburgh at 11 a.m., right when Minnesota plays Indiana State. The Gophers open their Big Ten schedule at Penn State on Oct. 1, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Nittany Lions and new QB Trace McSorley look in this tuneup against an in-state rival.
• Otherwise, this week’s slate isn’t overly compelling for the Big Ten, save for North Carolina-Illinois and Iowa State-Iowa. Things heat up significantly in Week 3, with Ohio State at Oklahoma, Michigan State at Notre Dame, Oregon at Nebraska and five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State at Iowa.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
1. Ohio State (1-0): Bowling Green is a good MAC team, 28-15 since 2013, and the Buckeyes still rolled 77-10.
2. Michigan (1-0): The Wolverines held serve, overwhelming Hawaii 63-3, mostly on the ground.
3. Wisconsin (1-0): LSU fans with pitchforks should keep in mind: UW led the nation in scoring defense last year.
4. Iowa (1-0): The Hawkeyes beat Miami (Ohio) by 24 points but gave up over 400 yards on defense.
5. Michigan State (1-0): The offense struggled against Furman, but QB Tyler O’Connor was 13-for-18 with three TDs.
6. Nebraska (1-0): The Cornhuskers do tributes so well, and none better than last week’s for punter Sam Foltz.
7. Penn State (1-0): One promising stat from Kent State game: The Nittany Lions surrendered only one sack.
8. Gophers (1-0): Meanwhile, Minnesota didn’t allow any sacks in its seven-point victory over Oregon State.
9. Indiana (1-0): Long-suffering Hoosiers defense had two pick-sixes and held FIU to 63 yards rushing.
10. Illinois (1-0): North Carolina’s visit will tell Lovie Smith more about his team than rout of Murray State.
11. Northwestern (0-1): Loss to Western Michigan was as stunning as last year’s season-opening win over Stanford.
12. Maryland (1-0): The Terps rushed for 315 yards in blowout win over Howard in D.J. Durkin’s coaching debut.
13. Purdue (1-0): Sophomore Markell Jones rushed for 145 yards in the opening win over Eastern Kentucky.
14. Rutgers (0-1): Washington is a top-10 team. Playing there was a tough draw for Chris Ash’s coaching debut.