Ever since he was in elementary school, DJ Nelson has developed fond memories of attending various Utah State sporting events..
The Logan native recalled watching USU point guard Bernard Rock and company play an exhibition game against EA Sports on Nov. 2, 2001.
“That was my first Aggie basketball memory,” Nelson said. “My first Aggie football memory was a snow game, the old pressbox. I was actually standing right here and (All-American wide receiver) Kevin Curtis took a screen to the house right in front of us.”
Without question, a passion for Aggie athletics runs deep for Nelson, who is currently a senior wide receiver/special teams standout for USU’s record-setting football team. This zeal among the Nelson family existed well before the son of Keith and Joni Nelson was born.
It all started in 1922 when great-grandfather George Wesley Schaub was a quarterback for USU, which was then known as the Agricultural College. Another great-grandfather, George “Doc” Nelson, was a legendary Aggie wrestling coach and trainer. The Fieldhouse, which first opened its doors in 1940 and is still being used today, was renamed the George Nelson Fieldhouse in 1956.
Rod Tueller, who is DJ Nelson’s grandfather on his mother’s side, was USU’s head men’s basketball coach from 1980-88 and also was the university’s athletics director from 1985-1992.
DJ’s father, Keith, played football at USU, as did his older brother, Riley. Chase Nelson, DJ’s younger brother, is currently a redshirt freshman safety for the Aggies. Indeed, the Aggie history is rich in the Nelson/Tueller household.
“I loved sports as a little kid, so to have a local sports team, I automatically became a huge fan and I remember painting my face for games,” DJ Nelson said. “... I’ve just always been an Aggie fan.”
So when then-USU head football coach Gary Andersen offered DJ Nelson a scholarship midway through his stellar senior season at Logan High, it was an easy decision. Nelson has vivid memories of the Saturday phone call he received from Andersen in the fall of 2011.
Andersen surprised Nelson by calling his son, Chasen, and having him hand his then-Grizzly teammate and close friend the phone.
“It was a dream come true,” Nelson said. “I’ve told other people in other interviews that this place always would be at the top of my list no matter wherever else I got recruited. So, it is a dream come true and one that very few people even get to play Division I college football, let alone for play for their hometown in front of their friends and family.”
Nelson wasn’t heavily recruited despite taking the 4A classification by storm as a prep senior. Nelson quarterbacked the Grizzlies to a 14-0 record — Keith and Riley also helped propel their Logan teams to state championships, while Chase went undefeated as the Grizzlies’ starting signal caller in 2013 — and made one of the biggest plays in school history when he lofted a well-placed 40-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Jameson Hartman in the final minute of their 4A title showdown against East. Logan trailed 11-10 before the clutch play.
As a senior, Nelson passed for 3,489 yards and added an impressive 1,605 yards on the ground. He was selected as an U.S. Air Force Medium Schools first-team All-American, as well as a MaxPreps second-team All-American.
Nelson had aspirations of being an impact performer for the Aggies at quarterback after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately for Nelson, that never materialized. His only career pass for the Aggies was a 12-yard completion on a trick play against Air Force as a redshirt sophomore.
“Well, it certainly didn’t go as I had expected,” Nelson said. “One of my favorite quotes is from Mike Tyson. Weird person to have a favorite quote from, but it’s ‘everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.’ ... You can have a plan, you can have an idea of what you’re going to do as a freshman coming in, me fresh off my mission ... and then eventually a punch will come.
“In my case, it was I didn’t quite do enough to warrant playing time at quarterback. You know, I still feel like I could play quarterback today. ... But for whatever reason it didn’t work out, so there was the punch, so I could either lay back and pout and blame this and that, or I could regroup, roll with whatever punch I took and find ways to contribute. And so that’s the way that I approached it and, yeah, I just didn’t really look back after that, and I’ve enjoyed every moment. It hasn’t been what I ideally thought it would be when I first came in, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Indeed, Nelson has scratched and clawed his way to meaningful playing time. The 5-foot-9, 200-pounder has been USU’s first-string holder since 2015. Earlier this season, No. 12 was named the Mortell Award Holder of the Week after a record-setting performance by placekicker Dominik Eberle against New Mexico State.
Additionally, Nelson has flat-out excelled in several different special teams roles. As a junior, Nelson blocked two punts, including one he returned 43 yards to the house against Colorado State, and found paydirt on a fake field goal from four yards out against Wyoming. No. 12 also picked up a first down on a fourth down trick play as a junior and forced a fumble in another game.
“DJ loves the game and he’s a competitor,” said Luke Wells, who coaches USU’s inside receivers and tight ends. “He’s the kind of guy that it seems like he’s never had a bad day in his life. You know, he’s always in a good mood and he is always ready for anything you ask him to do.”
USU’s coaching staff elected to permanently move Nelson to slot receiver toward the end of the 2017 campaign, and he showed immediate promise at that position by catching a pass in the final two games.
“When he first came over, there was a lot of technique that he had to learn,” Wells said. “Learning how to run routes was probably the first thing he learned that’s probably been the biggest improvement from this year to last year. He was immediately a really good blocker when he came over. That’s something he picked up really fast. A lot of that was of his special teams background, but becoming a good route runner, he really improved on that this year.”
Nelson sparkled during spring and fall camp of 2018, and was primed for a breakout senior season. It showed as No. 12 hauled in three receptions against Michigan State and Tennessee Tech, plus had a nice catch-and-run called back against the Spartans due to a penalty.
Unfortunately for Nelson, he broke his collarbone a few days before the Aggies hosted Air Force on Sept. 22. The two-time Academic All-Mountain West honoree sat out a couple of games before returning against UNLV. Nelson caught a pair of passes against New Mexico and alertly recovered a fumble by teammate Ron’quavion Tarver last weekend against Hawaii.
And while the injury was an unlucky setback, Nelson has graciously dealt with it in stride — just like he always has.
“The success that we’ve had as a team is something that I won’t trade for any individual accomplishment, and that’s just kind of how I view the game of football,” said Nelson, who was tabbed the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week on Oct. 9, 2017. “If I can do anything individually to help the team win, then I’ll do that, and whatever individual accomplishments come with that are great.”
Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, Wells is supremely confident the versatile senior will do a good job fulfilling whatever assignments he is called upon.
“It’s impressive,” Wells said when asked about Nelson’s ability to impact a game in a myriad of ways. “He’s a great special teams player, and we knew when we moved him over to inside receiver that he would be a good inside receiver. And he blocks really well, he’s got good hands, and the biggest thing is you know you’re going to get a guy who plays hard every snap he’s in there, and he’s going to compete. And that’s probably the biggest thing about him is he’s a great competitor.”
Nelson is hungry to do whatever he can to help the Aggies extend their eight-game winning streak, but it’s the relationships he’s built with his teammates — past and present — that he will cherish the most.
“Just being with the guys, man,” Nelson said when asked about his favorite memories. “Every day grinding in the offseason, running, lifting, times when we’re just chilling in the locker room, times when we go play basketball together. You know, we have a barbecue every once in a while or go out to eat together. It’s just being with my teammates and being with all of these guys from different walks of life, that’s by far my favorite memory. And then obviously you can’t trade Saturdays for anything. Those are just special in and of themselves, so every Saturday’s been awesome.”
Nelson, a business administration and finance major, is on track to graduate next month. In his free time, the Logan native “loves to do any water activity during summer,” play the piano, watch Netflix, play basketball and “just be active.”