The Miami Hurricanes haven’t had an offensive tackle drafted to the NFL since 2015. That drought could end in the 2023 NFL Draft with Miami OT Zion Nelson returning to the program for his senior season. Can Nelson join Ereck Flowers, Vernon Carey, and Bryant McKinnie as a first-round selection from the Hurricanes? Nelson’s scouting report may hold the answers.
Zion Nelson NFL Draft Profile
- Position: Offensive Tackle
- School: Miami
- Current Year: Junior
- Height: 6’5″
- Weight: 316 pounds
Zion Nelson Scouting Report
The one thing that has been apparent from a young age is that Nelson possesses the height, length, and athletic ability to play the game at the highest level. At 6’5″, he has the requisite height to play offensive tackle, and he has the arm length to succeed at the position.
Nelson’s most impressive attribute is his athleticism. He demonstrates this athleticism in several ways. Most obviously is in his ability to get out to the second level in the ground game. There are multiple examples on tape of the Miami OT getting out ahead of the play and blocking downfield, helping spring the ball carrier for a significant gain.
Furthermore, Nelson’s exceptional athleticism flashes in the nuances of the position. He exhibits excellent ability to quickly get out of his stance and into his pass set. Nelson displays great footwork, rarely allowing any crossover in his feet.
Additionally, Nelson possesses the ability to mirror defensive linemen, quickly adjusting to any counter moves. He routinely showcases the aptness to shepherd pass rushers away from the quarterback with a combination of his length and footwork.
Nelson is stout in the run game. In addition to his ability to get out to the next level, he has a great understanding of using angles to seal off defensive ends to open running lanes. Nelson also opens running lanes by down blocking defensive tackles.
Areas for improvement
The uncertainty over Nelson throughout his career has focused around his weight. Being a thin-framed high school player impacted his recruiting process. Although he added significant weight between Sumter and his first season at Miami, he still played around 275-280 pounds as a freshman. Miami lists him at 316 pounds for the coming season, which is roughly where you’d want him to play at for his height.
Despite the increase in size, he would benefit from gaining a little more muscle.
At times, Nelson shows exceptional hand usage. Still, this is an area where he needs to be more consistent in 2021. For every example of excellent hand placement, there is an example where he misplaces his hands which puts him at a disadvantage in pass protection.
Nelson is also prone to lunging at defensive linemen, leaving him unbalanced and again putting him at a disadvantage. There were multiple cases in the games studied where he was easily taken to the ground.
Although there are a few areas for improvement, it is worth noting the Miami OT has made enormous strides between his freshman and sophomore years. If he can continue that upward trajectory this season, Nelson could be knocking on the door of the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Nelson’s Player Profile
While Nelson received significant attention during the early part of the 2022 NFL Draft cycle, his football journey hasn’t always been in the spotlight. A three-star high school recruit from Sumter in South Carolina, Nelson garnered very little national acclaim. 247 Sports listed him as the 114th offensive tackle in the 2019 recruiting class. Furthermore, he was only ranked as the 1,414th-player nationally.
In some respects, it’s hardly surprising. Nelson was relatively inexperienced at the sport, having only started playing football in seventh grade. Before that, he’d shown promise as a cello player but ditched the instrument when he discovered football. With impressive athleticism, the tall but lanky youngster saw time as a defensive end and tight end early in his career.
The positional uncertainty was another factor in his less than stellar recruiting profile. “We knew Zion was going to be a great player,” Sumter coach Mark Barnes told The Athletic in 2019. “We just didn’t know what Zion was going to be.”
Success for Sumter leads to a senior season suitor
In his senior year, it became apparent exactly what he was going to be. Playing offensive tackle, Nelson helped guide Sumter to a 10-1 record and a place in the Class 5A regional semifinal. As such, he suddenly found a new suitor. Having received precious few offers, Nelson had committed to Appalachian State before his senior season. However, Miami saw something the staff at Sumter had seen all along and made an offer late in the process.
“He could do everything you wanted him to do on the field,” Barnes continued. “He’s physical. He showed all the qualities you want as far as run blocking, zone blocking, and pass blocking.”
Nelson wanted to stay close to home. When multiple visits to South Carolina didn’t result in an offer, however, the opportunity to play for the Hurricanes proved too good to turn down. As a result, the offensive tackle rescinded his commitment to Appalachian State and headed south for Miami.
Nelson’s career at Miami
An early enrollee at Miami, Nelson was impressive during spring practices. Despite being a relative unknown to Hurricanes fans due to his low recruiting profile, he earned the starting job at left tackle as a true freshman. His transformation from a high school recruit with zero Division I offers to a starter for a Power Five school had an element of fairytale to it.
Unfortunately, like most fairytales, the story doesn’t always run smoothly. Nelson endured a torrid start to his college football career. The entire Miami offensive line ranked 128th out of 130 FBS programs after allowing 3.92 sacks per game in 2019. Additionally, Nelson conceded 38 pressures and 12 sacks, the most by any left tackle in the nation.
Amongst the dark clouds hanging over the Miami OT, a sliver of light shined through. Nelson helped Miami hold the pass-rush prowess of the Pittsburgh Panthers to just 2 sacks, significantly less than their season average. Against Louisville, the offensive line gave up just 1.
After a frustrating freshman season, Nelson soars as a sophomore
Despite those signs of improvement, Nelson’s poor performance for most of the previous season meant he lost his starting job for 2020. Although he saw time in the season opener, it wasn’t until injuries on the line that he regained the starting left tackle job.
Having undergone significant technical development and physical transformation, Nelson flourished from the Florida State game onwards. He helped power the offense to multiple games with over 500 yards. The Hurricanes tallied 517 yards against FSU, 524 against Duke, and in the Cheez-It Bowl, they totaled 512 yards against an impressive Oklahoma State defense.
In his final six starts of the season, Nelson allowed just 5 quarterback pressures and 2 sacks. The upturn in performance was remarkable, and as a result, Nelson headed into the 2021 season with significant NFL Draft interest. However, he suffered a difficult start to the season, giving up 3 sacks and 11 pressures through the first five games.
Like the previous season, Nelson appeared to get stronger as the season progressed. Down the stretch, the Miami OT only allowed four QB pressures and didn’t allow a single sack. Faced with the decision to declare or return at the end of the year, Nelson opted to return to the Hurricanes for one more season in the hope of elevating his stock in the 2023 NFL Draft.