Jake Nelson became the starting quarterback for the Central Washington University football team earlier this season, and the way things have worked out you might think it was a sure thing.
It was anything but.
Nelson, a 2012 graduate of Lake Stevens High School, joined the Wildcats a year ago and spent his first season as a redshirt, meaning he never played but also preserved a year of eligibility. He practiced each week and then spent game days on the sideline, charting the team’s offensive plays as they were called in by the head coach.
“In high school I was used to playing all the time, so it was definitely different,” Nelson said. “I was antsy. I definitely wanted to play. But it also gave me a full year to learn the whole offense.”
This year Nelson joined the battle to replace last season’s senior starter, Ryan Robertson, and Nelson was one of many in the mix. There were four upperclassmen returning from 2012 and five freshmen, including Nelson. But two upperclassmen quit the team, as did two freshmen, and two players were moved to other positions.
Suddenly it was a three-man race. Nelson did not suit up for the season opener because of a knee injury and he was a backup the next week. But in the second quarter of the second game he got the call and has held the job ever since.
“Before that game, the coach had told me to be ready,” Nelson said. “And then they put me in. We were up 14-0, so I was a little surprised they put me in there. But I was more excited than anything. I was ready to go.”
And since then, he added, “I’ve been feeling pretty comfortable. The first few games I started, I struggled little bit. I didn’t turn the ball over, but I was missing some throws and some reads. But I’ve been playing OK since then, and the last few weeks I’ve been playing a lot better.”
Nelson is still the starter heading into CWU’s regular-season finale Saturday at Dixie State in St. George, Utah. Along the way he passed for 172 yards and two touchdowns while running for another 66 yards in a Nov. 2 win over Humboldt State, after which Nelson was named the Great Northwest Athletic Conference offensive player of the week.
Last week he passed for a career-best 244 yards while completing 23 of 36 attempts with two touchdowns, though he also threw three interceptions in a 32-26 loss at Western Oregon.
As with any young quarterback, “he’s still trying to learn the college game a little bit,” said CWU head coach John Picha. “In doing that there’s a maturing process for a young player, but he’s doing a pretty darn good job of it. He’s a quick learner … and throughout the year he’s progressed.”
In high school Nelson was 6 feet 2 inches and about 185 pounds. He is still 6-2, but is now up to 210 pounds, largely due to the team’s weight training program. By adding muscle, he said, “it doesn’t hurt that much to get hit, and if you’re stronger it’s easier to break tackles.”
There is also the benefit of greater arm strength. Nelson said he cannot necessarily throw the ball farther now, “but I can throw it a lot harder than I could in high school.”
Nelson is one of four Lake Stevens graduates on the CWU roster, and they were all 2012 classmates and all first-year redshirts. Brady Pahukoa is a former wide receiver who has converted to tight end and is seeing occasional action, as is wide receiver Christian Gasca. Linebacker Korey Young has been on the scout team this season, but should begin moving up the depth chart next year.
The loss at Western Oregon dropped the team’s season record to 6-4 and eliminated any chance of a GNAC championship. Also out is the hope of playing in the NCAA Division II national playoffs.
Those are big disappointments, of course, but the team hopes to go forward and perhaps further in the coming years. Having a veteran quarterback in Nelson can only help.
He will have three more college seasons, and in that time “you hope he can grow and can become a better player,” Picha said. “Only time will tell how far a guy can go. And that’s really up to Jake because he has to put in the work.
“But by the time he’s a junior and a senior, I think he’s going to be a pretty lethal offensive weapon. And we’re really happy that he’s here at Central Washington.”