By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
When the last football season started, Ryan Nehlen was buried on the West Virginia depth chart, his plans being to play what was his senior season and head off to medical school.
Considering that his grade point average was higher than his vertical jump, and that was the highest on the team, that seemed like the proper route to take.
Then Dana Holgorsen came in, brought with him an offense that featured an aerial assault that used so many wide receivers that you had to have two left feet and all thumbs not to play ... and that certainly did not fit the talented young grandson of former WVU football coach Don Nehlen, the Hall of Famer.
Of course, carrying such a last name can prove to be a burden, as there are those who feel if you get a chance it is because of the name and not ability, and if you don’t succeed, that feeling is only doubled.
Nehlen, however, didn’t mind the name.
“No, I never wanted it to be anything else. I like my last name,” he said.
With Holgorsen’s offense in place, he began getting some time on the field and while his statistics hardly registered on the passing seismograph, he got playing time, caught six passes and actually caught his first collegiate touchdown pass against Bowling Green.
In fact, it actually made Coach Nehlen’s day, something he took note of during a halftime television interview.
But if that made Coach Nehlen’s day, it wasn’t as much of a season highlight as performing in the Orange Bowl, that 70-33 mugging of Clemson that propelled the Mountaineers into the national spotlight this season.
“I had been here for four years and never gone to a big bowl. To go out there and have a performance like that was pretty awesome,” he said after Tuesday’s spring practice at Mountaineer Field. “You come here and play college football, you want to be a part of the biggest game. Last year it was the LSU game. Topping it off with the Orange Bowl made it a pretty special year.”
It also got him to thinking about that road to medical school.
Like, what’s the rush?
And so it is that he decided to play his redshirt senior season.
“I’m here and I’m playing and everything is going well,” he noted. “I still have some classes I have to take. I could have sped up the graduation but I’m here making plays and contributing to this team.”
What’s more, according to the latest depth chart that was released by the coaching staff Tuesday, he is running as a starting wide receiver, ahead of Ivan McCartney, who has been battling nagging injuries.
Against, this is not to be taken as a joke. Nehlen is a player, a talented athlete with speed and agility and intelligence, the kind of player who can really have a big senior season on a team where he surely will be overlooked.
“Last year meant a lot. I’d put in my time here. It was nice to go out and contribute, make plays and get some good playing time,” he said.
Now he’s looking to do more than just contribute. He is competing for a starting spot.
“Every time you go on that field you want to compete with everyone and make the best of it. I enjoy competing,” he said. “We had competition in the winter time just lifting and doing all the speed stuff. Now it’s carrying over into the spring. It’s basically the same competition as last year. Everyone is back and it’s a fresh new start for everyone in the spring.”
Nehlen is what you’d call a hometown hero. He played his high school ball at University High under Coach John Kelley. While that means he played just a couple of miles from Mountaineer Field, it was a long, hard trip.
As recently as spring break, he retraced his steps back to University High, although now it is a new school and new football facility.
The WVU facility was closed during the break and he needed to work out.
“It’s a heck of a place out there,” he said of the new facility. “It means a lot, wanting to play at WVU, growing up in Morgantown. Representing University High is pretty special.”
When this season ends, Nehlen will have to take a look at where he is.
“I’m going to try to go to medical school. We’ll see where football takes me. We’ll see what happens this year.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.