After the 2011 season, Chryst took the head coaching job at Pittsburgh, taking three Badgers assistants with him. In all, then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema lost six assistant coaches that offseason, and one year later, Bielema left for Arkansas.
“So I kind of dodged a bullet there,” the younger Nelson said.
“It’s not like I ever really wanted to go to Wisconsin during my recruiting process because I knew I wanted Minnesota.
“But just looking back on it, that’s exactly what I didn’t want, to go into a situation where the coaches who recruited me ended up leaving.”
Landing in a stable place
Philip Nelson said his father was the first person in his family to “fall in love” with Kill’s staff. Besides the group’s track record for rebuilding programs, the chief reason was stability. Seven of Kill’s assistants have been with him for at least 13 years.
Nelson was one of the first members of the 2012 class to commit to Minnesota. A group including Maxx Williams, Mitch Leidner, Ben Lauer and Jonah Pirsig soon followed.
As fate would have it, Kill made the decision to pull Nelson’s redshirt last year after six games, just in time to play at Wisconsin. Nelson threw two touchdown passes but also threw two interceptions in a 38-13 loss.
Since then, Nelson has come a long away, and so has his supporting cast.
“Now I have about a year’s worth of games on me, and I know what to expect and what a victory takes in a game at the Division I level,” he said.
Nelson dealt with a hamstring injury last November, and the same injury bit him again this year in the season’s third game. The Gophers turned to Leidner, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after rushing for four touchdowns against San Jose State.
Nelson returned for the Sept. 28 game against Iowa, and threw two interceptions in a disappointing 23-7 loss. Only later did he acknowledge his hamstring wasn’t fully healed.
Leidner started the next three games, but Nelson came off the bench to help the Gophers beat Northwestern and Nebraska, then started again in wins over Indiana and Penn State.
“I’ve learned you’ve got to be healthy in order to perform well,” Nelson said. “And it’s difficult to play in this offense and stay healthy the whole year. That’s why Mitch and I know that it’s important to have each other.
“I’m really thankful that it’s been a civil competition, as well. It’s not like there’s any hatred between us at all. I like our relationship. I think we make each other better, which is what it’s all about.”
For now, it’s Nelson’s offense again. With junior David Cobb reeling off four consecutive 100-yard games, the Gophers have been on quite a roll.
If they pull another upset Saturday, look down on the field, and you’ll see a father and son, holding that Axe, with the gold side of the blade held close to their hearts.