Ja’ier Nelson takes off for a touchdown in Nottingham’s win against Steinert. Photo by Mary Malone
By Rich Fisher
Sep. 8: It wasn’t sent by tweet, text or email, but it was a message nonetheless delivered by the Nottingham High football team.
One year after Diontae Nicholson was nearly the Northstars entire offense with 1,785 yards and 21 touchdowns, Nottingham opened its season having to prove that would not be the case this year. Nicholson stood on the sidelines in sweats at Steinert today, recovering from a concussion he suffered during a scrimmage with Ewing.
While the Stars hope to have the junior stud back next week, no one could say for certain if that’s the case.
For one game, at least, it didn’t matter as junior Ja’ier Nelson did exactly what Nicholson asked of him.
“Before the game he told me I had to be the main factor of the offense and I listened to him,” Nelson said. “I picked it up today.”
In a massive way.
Nelson’s five rushing attempts produced 120 yards and three touchdowns as Nottingham opened with a 20-6 win over the Spartans in the Battle of Klockner Road. He also came up with a huge red zone interception and forced a fumble to help the Stars get four takeaways.
Asked if he considers himself a defensive or offensive player, Nelson said, “I’m kind of in the middle, I’m all around.”
“He’s one of our main guys in the kick return game too,” coach Jon “Big Dawg” Adams said. “The young man is a special, special athlete. I think he’s gonna be one of the best players in the state this year.”
Quarterback Logan Barber agreed.
“He had a great game,” Barber said. “We know he’s a great player. When he’s just himself, he’s someone nobody can deal with. He’s such a great player, a great athlete.”
Barber is another reason why Nottingham won’t be a Diontae-only offense this year. Now in his second season as a starter, the junior completed both his passes for 53 yards an also showed some good running ability after a season of basically handing the ball off.
“I worked a lot in the off-season,” Barber said. “We only threw twice today but it’s gonna come. Defenses should be ready, that’s all I can say.”
Barber’s improvement has been noticeable.
“He’s much better; much more relaxed,” Adams said. “He’s shown he’s in charge of the team. I like that he tucked the ball today. He got called for that helmet-to-helmet (penalty after a nice gain), which I thought was a little hokey, but I’ll take that any time. He’s become a leader of our team, he’s a captain and he’s a great kid.”
“He’s making a major, major impact,” Nelson said. “Last year we only thought he could throw the ball or hand it off. This year he’s showing he can actually run, lower his shoulder.”
But the day belonged to Ja’ier. His first big play came in the first quarter on a Steinert third-and-10 from the Nottingham 15, when he intercepted an option pass on the 8-yard line. In the second quarter gave the Stars a 6-0 lead on a 61-yard touchdown run.
With the score tied 6-6 after Will Laster scored a 1-yard run late in the first half, Nelson went 56 yards on the third play of the third quarter to give Nottingham the lead for good. The first of two Derek Williams interceptions set up a 1-yard run by Nelson and on Steinert’s first play after that, he forced a fumble the Stars recovered.
“He just gave us a huge lift,” Barber said. “He stepped up big time and helped the whole team out on defense and offense.”
It is interesting to watch Nelson run. He doesn’t look particularly fast, but he just slides through holes with seemingly no effort.
“I just shift,” said Nelson, who was used mainly on defense last year. “Even coach (Bob) Harris says I’m shifty, so I just pick a hole and I go. I’m just patient.”
Adams concurred with that self-assessment.
“He glides and he sees it and that’s when he gets his burst,” the coach said. “He’s a very patient runner and you can’t teach that. Some guys pick it up, some guys don’t. Ja’ier has just been the guy behind the scenes, but he’s gonna be a big part of who we are this year.”
Adams added that even when Nicholson returns, Nelson and several other runners will get their opportunities. Marc Kauffman rushed for 69 yards in his first varsity game.
“Everybody thinks that we’re just Dionte,” Nelson said. “But we’re gonna shock ‘em.”
EXTRA POINTS: Steinert played without standout linebacker Xavier Roman, who suffered a concussion earlier this week. Ironically, Roman and Nicholson both wear 21 . . . Nottingham held Steinert to 113 yards of defense and Derek Williams had two interceptions for Nottingham.. . . Adams, who re-aggravated his knee injury and needs another surgery, praised assistant head coach Milo McGuire and offensive coordinator Ross Maddalon for their game-planning . . . Steinert’s first four drives started at its 43 and Nottingham’s 46, 47 and 34 . . . Laster rushed for 59 yards on 15 carries . . . Steinert received the George O’Gorman award prior to the game, symbolic of Hamilton’s top athletic program in 2017.
NEXT WEEK: Nottingham hosts Moorestown Saturday; Steinert is at Hopewell Valley Friday night and Hamilton West opens at West Windsor-Plainsboro Friday night.