The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

August 22, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Nehlen nabs spot in WR mix

MORGANTOWN — The clock was ticking on Ryan Nehlen almost loudly enough for you to hear the time running out on him.

Here he was, a walk-on wide receiver from a local high school, no less, and every day he was shaking loose from hotly recruited defensive backs, catching everything thrown his way, blocking people.

But that was during the spring and during camp, when those with something to prove are determined to prove it while the veterans are working themselves into playing shape. You could almost hear the wheels turning on a new offensive coaching staff ... as if they were thinking what they always think ... “When camp ends, the real players step up.”

Yeah, we’d seen it all before ... it was like the hot-shot rookie in spring training who went through the early games hitting .450. Then one day, he sat down and wrote the folks back home a letter. It read:

“Be home soon. They started throwing curveballs today.”

So it is with so many players who come out of high school and show up in a college football camp, enjoying the good life ... right up until they start throwing that “curveball” to them.

Certainly the scholarship guys would begin passing Ryan Nehlen by once they started banging heads, when they got their football legs, right? Everyone was just waiting for him to fail, right, Geno Smith?

“Oh, man, that’s not going to happen,” the West Virginia University quarterback said as camp was coming to a close and Nehlen had elbowed his way into the receiver rotation and actually was in a hard-fought duel with Ivan McCartney, a highly-touted recruit who was Smith’s high school teammate, for a starting job at wide receiver.

Smith has seen the grandson of former WVU Hall of Fame football coach Don Nehlen and son of veteran Mountaineer equipment manager Dan Nehlen turn up the heat when some though he would fade.

That Nehlen has come on so strongly hasn’t surprised him, either.

“He didn’t surprise me,” Smith said. “Coming from Florida I’ve never seen many white guys running and jumping like that, making those type of plays.”

It started in Smith’s freshman year, Nehlen’s redshirt freshman season after having been an All-State player for coach John Kelley at University High.

“My freshman year it was just me, him and (receiver) J.D. Woods,” Smith said. “Now to see his hard work pay off ... he’s worked really hard.”

Nehlen has combined that hard work with an intelligence that has him on track to attend medical school with a rare athleticism, one that takes everyone by surprise.

“Ryan has great character and great work ethic,” Smith said. “He’s a quiet guy, but he gets his work done. Two, he has a skill set not many guys have. He’s the highest jumper we have on our team. He’s one of the fastest guys, one of the hardest workers.”

His athleticism has meant far more than his family connections in getting a break at WVU.

“I can run well. I can jump and use that to my advantage,” he said.

Run? They don’t time their players in the 40, but Nehlen is acknowledged as one of the fastest wide receivers. And jump. His vertical leap was the team’s best at 39.5 inches, which is basketball-like, while his broad job was 10 feet, 6 inches, also the team’s best.

The bond that began between Nehlen and Smith during his redshirt freshman year really took root last year, a time that could have been a difficult period for Nehlen.

“When I had my knee surgery last year and he had his (foot) surgery, we were out there and a bond started. We got to know each other, sweating together, bleeding together,” Nehlen said. “Then we built up a chemistry this summer.”

It was a strong relationship that developed between Smith and Nehlen, one of friendship and trust.

“I love him a lot,” Nehlen said of his quarterback. “He is a great leader who will praise you when you do something good, get on you if you run a wrong route.”

Running wrong routes is something Nehlen rarely does, in part because he approaches football the same way he approaches his academics.

“You have to work hard,” he said when asked how academics and football are similar. “Each thing takes time.”

Nehlen actually missed a good bit of football because of lab classes he had to attend, something Smith understood.

“If there’s a decision between school and ball, we have to choose school,” Smith said.

Nehlen came out of the woodwork to become a player coach Dana Holgorsen is counting on in a number of areas.

“I’m a junior now. I think it’s definitely my time to lead,” Nehlen said. “I’m not a huge vocal person, so my best role is being out there leading by example and showing the young guys what it should look like.

“It’s fast-paced; a lot of players can make plays. Any time a play can go the distance. Coach Holgorsen emphasizes we just want to get first downs, but eventually first downs will turn into big plays.”

Especially if you have speed, athleticism, good hands and a head on your shoulders, the way Nehlen does.

Email Bob Hertzel at or follow him on Twitter at @bhertzel.

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