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IOWA CITY — Matt Nelson has six inches and 30 pounds on former Iowa defensive end Nate Meier. But Meier’s motor is legendary around the Hawkeye football complex, and defensive line coach Reese Morgan often invokes Meier’s name to get a rise out of Nelson.
“Coach Morgan always says. ‘Get a little more Nate Meier in you,’” said Nelson, a sophomore from Cedar Rapids. “I’ve tried to do that every day so far.
“Just play quick, play instinctive, Nate would sometimes do things that we’re not supposed to do and make plays. Coach Morgan would yell at him and then he’s like, ‘Good job, good play here.’ A little more instinctiveness and fast twitch.”
Meier had a bit of on-field crazy to him, which he used to his advantage against much larger offensive linemen. Nelson, who stands 6-8 and weighs 283 pounds, can match his opponents in size. Since arriving at Iowa, Nelson has gained 35 pounds of muscle. The weight hasn’t bogged him down, either. Nelson said all of his performance indicators — speed, agility, vertical jumps, among others — have improved. He’s likely to fill out his frame with more weight in the coming years.
Nelson, an all-state player at Cedar Rapids Xavier, has barely scratched his potential. He played in 13 games as a freshman, totaling 14 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. By season’s end, Nelson became a heavy rotational defensive end. He recorded four tackles against Purdue and earned his only sack in the Rose Bowl against Stanford.
While his size gives him an edge, Nelson still strives for daily improvement with his technique.
“From day one here to now is a night-and-day difference,” Nelson said. “That’s mostly on Coach Morgan, Coach (Seth) Wallace when he was our defensive line assistant, Coach (Kelvin) Bell, Coach (Broderick) Binns. All of them have really harped with all of us to nail down the technique.”
Nelson’s offensive teammates can see his improvements. When asked if he can spot Nelson’s growth, senior tight end George Kittle quipped, “Other than gaining like 50 pounds and having eight-foot long arms?”
“Matt’s done really well,” Kittle said. “He’s taken huge strides from him being a freshman and he didn’t know ... he was running around like a chicken with its head being cut off. He’s a force to be reckoned with. He’s a hard guy to block. He’s faster than you’d assume.”
Nelson likely will open training camp as a first-team defensive end, as Meier was last season. Nelson learned plenty of valuable lessons from Meier in practice but the most important was perhaps with the toughness Meier displayed. That’s what left a lasting impression.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I know,” Nelson said. “Especially in the Nebraska game, he gutted that out for most of the game. His groin was bothering him. He’s tough as nails.
“Playing behind guys like that, him and Drew (Ott), they’re great mentors and great idols.”
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