Rookie wide receiver J.J. Nelson catches a pass during offseason work
As the offseason work wound down, the trash-talking between three Cardinals wide receivers heated up.
On the last day of minicamp in mid-June, Brittan Golden, John Brown and J.J. Nelson arrived at some idle time in between practice drills. To fill it, they began spouting the virtues of their respective colleges.
All three are from small schools – West Texas
A&M, Pittsburg State and Alabama-Birmingham, respectively – and while those programs' NFL footprints pale in comparison to BCS schools, each player takes great pride in where they come from. After Brown dismissed the strength of West Texas A&M, Golden shot back, naming off his fellow alums who were currently residing in NFL training camps.
"I joke with Smoke (Brown) all the time," Golden said later. "If they came to Canyon, Texas, we would have waxed them."
Nelson, a soft-spoken rookie, was mostly quiet, but in truth, he probably had the strongest claim in the conversation. The Blazers have nine players currently on NFL rosters, highlighted by Falcons four-time Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White. Furthermore, UAB is the only Division I college among the three, and behind a promising new coach, the team became bowl-eligible for only the second time in its history in 2014.
The problem is, UAB won't be playing football in 2015, and a turbulent past seven months could peck away at the possibility of more NFL additions in the foreseeable future.
When Nelson was selected by the Cardinals in the fifth round of the draft this May, he thought he would be one of the final two picks to ever come from UAB (along with tight end Kennard Backman, who went to the Packers in the sixth round). In late November, Nelson stood in the team's locker room and listened to coach Bill Clark announce the school's administration was shutting down the football program, the first major college to do so since Pacific in 1995.
It was a two-by-four to the face of the players, who were still reveling in their 45-24 victory over Southern Miss in the season finale.
"They embarrassed us in our home stadium (the year before), so to just go there and to get that sixth win against our rival, it was big," Nelson said. "We were on a high. And then once we got to that meeting, he hit us with some news like that, it really crushed everything. A lot of guys in there were crying. Grown men
crying because we knew what he meant, and we understood (the ramifications)."
The Blazers' 6-6 regular season finish made them eligible for a bowl game, and the hope was the team could play once more together before getting shut down. But no bowl host extended an invitation, as it made little financial sense for anyone to offer UAB a spot.
So that was it. The program was dead.
"We were waiting for a bowl invitation …" Nelson said, trailing off. "It was crazy."
Nelson excelled as a senior in 2014, finishing with 655 yards receiving while averaging a nation-best 38.3 yards per kick return with four return touchdowns. He was named a first-team All-American by several outlets, the first UAB player to garner the honor since White in 2004.
Once the season ended, he had to move forward to prepare for the NFL draft, but did so while feeling sympathy for the chaotic mess his underclassmen teammates found themselves in.
"Once the decision was made, a lot of coaches were there to recruit guys," Nelson said. "I was still there taking classes because I graduated in December. The next day, you had 50 schools – big name schools: Florida, Oklahoma State, Indiana, Vanderbilt, schools like that – come to the campus. Our coaches, they brought them in. They checked the film to see who the other teams wanted. They gave them film, gave them input like, 'This is a great guy.'"
In total, nearly 60 players transferred out of the Alabama-Birmingham program to continue their careers elsewhere.
Then the craziest thing happened: After a groundswell of both financial and vocal support, the UAB administration announced in early June that the continuance of the football program was, in fact, financially viable.
While the mass exodus and the lack of a recruiting class made it impossible for the Blazers to field a team in 2015, a return to action could come as soon as 2016.
"A few faces are still there that were on the team a few years ago, but they're going to have to bring in a lot of new guys," Nelson said. "Coach Clark is a great recruiter. He brought in a lot of great juco guys, so I feel like he will do just that. Eventually they're going to be pretty good. He's going to put it right at the top the way it left."
Nelson's ascension at UAB was something like a dream. He wasn't offered a scholarship by any other Division I program, but scratched one out from the local school and eventually transformed
into a star. His performance with the Blazers – combined with the fastest 40-yard-dash at the NFL Scouting combine -- got him drafted, and he's the favorite to become the Cardinals' kick and punt return man in addition to a possible role as a deep threat at receiver.
During his time in college, the program matched his upward trajectory. After three, three and two wins in Nelson's first three seasons, last year's six-win campaign was the most at UAB since 2004. That's why it was so shocking to Nelson when rumors of the shutdown began to spread. He isn't quite sure what the lasting effect will be, and won't be completely sold on the team's rebirth until the players return to the field.
But one thing is certain: Nelson will be representing UAB the entire way. He's already imagined stumping for his school during a primetime NFL telecast lineup introduction, like some of the other program alums have done in the past.
"When Roddy White or Joe Webb, when Darrin Reaves gets up there to say 'UAB,' it just brings joy," Nelson said. "If I ever get a chance to get up there and say that, I feel like I'll get a lot of cheers and a lot of praise. Getting up there and saying, 'J.J. Nelson. UAB.' That would be a great feeling."
Up until last month, it seemed like Nelson would be among the last of that distinguished group to jump from UAB to the NFL. It may take some time, but now others seem destined to follow in his footsteps.
"I'm very excited we got it back," Nelson said. "With me being from the city of Birmingham, I know how much it means to them. I know how much it means to me. They gave me an opportunity. Without that opportunity, I don't know where I'd be today."
Images of the Cardinals gearing up for the season in past years