Defensive end Justin Nelson tackled nearly everyone who crossed his path in high school and signed a national letter of intent to play Big Ten football this season for Rutgers. The only obstacle he couldn't overcome occurred with his academics: He failed to qualify. Nassau CC became the fallback option he hopes will lead him back to Piscataway, New Jersey.
"I've been adjusting to it fine,'' the 6-1, 240-pound Nelson said this week as Nassau prepared for its season opener Friday at Widener JV. "Everyone is great. I love it here. It was a disappointment at first, but I was told to just keep it moving, keep it pushing, do what I have to do to get to the next level, so that's what I'm concentrating on right now.''
Nassau has long been the destination for FBS-caliber players requiring academic improvement. The byproduct is a veritable pipeline back to major college football. "Coach [Joe Osovet] tells everyone every day this is a major college football program just like any other one,'' Nelson said. Former Connetquot star running back Chad Bosch started at Nassau and went to Rutgers.
Nelson played at DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne, New Jersey. He had eight quarterback sacks last season and generated 185 tackles and 28 sacks in three years. He said he also had offers from Miami, Maryland and Massachusetts.
"We would have so much to do on the football side, it seemed like it was college,'' Nelson said. "I'm not blaming anyone for that. It's my own fault. Things could have been a little different on the academic side.''
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood contacted Nassau defensive coordinator Frank Chimenti and told him Nelson was available. Osovet took over from there, saying, "We threw on the film. We liked what we saw. He's an athletic kid. He stood out. Any time you get the opportunity to get a kid that had a scholarship to play in the Big Ten, I think it's a no-brainer. It was a win-win situation. He's been nothing but good to us so far. The kid works his tail off. He's focused. We stressed how important the academic structure is to get where he wants to go. He's no different than the other 74 kids that we have in the program.
"I told the kids the first day the talent level at this program is no different than the SEC, ACC or Pac-10 as a freshman or sophomore. You'll line up against a Division I kid. The main focus is to make sure the academic structure is there and that he has all the resources provided to be successful in the classroom.''
Nelson had some friends who played at Nassau, including Rasul Douglas, Nassau's top returning player on defense with 40 tackles and three interceptions. Also returning on defense is Demario Roye, Rob Rinck, Daryl Webster and Luder Jean Louis. The offense is led by Yahkee Johnson, who rushed for 808 yards and seven touchdowns, and wide receiver Elijah Bratcher, who caught 15 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns.
Osovet, 41, has a relationship with the program that spans almost two decades. This is his first season as head coach after taking over on an interim basis last season. The Babylon High School graduate made the 1991 Newsday All-Long Island team and played two years at Nassau before receiving a scholarship to Northeastern.
"It's a dream come true,'' he said of becoming Nassau's head coach. "It's something that I realized a long time ago that I wanted to do. Obviously, the ball didn't bounce the right way a few times, but I think now the administration on campus realizes they got the right guy to run this thing. I couldn't be happier to be sitting where I'm sitting right now.''
Nelson feels the same way about his own situation. "I still have all the same expectations as far as playing on the field, go hard, do what I have to do in the classroom, do what I have to do,'' he said, "and everything else will fall in place.''