Picasso Nelson Jr. is in a unique position on the Golden Eagle defense in 2018. The redshirt senior safety was expected to be a key contributor on the defensive unit in 2017 before an ankle injury sidelined him for the entire season.
Prior to the injury, Nelson had been a steady presence on the defense, starting a total of 31 games from 2014-2016. In 2016, Nelson also earned a Preseason All-Conference USA selection and recorded 48 tackles and two interceptions during the season. In his college career to date, Nelson has 142 tackles, seven tackles for loss and four interceptions.
To get a sense of how far back Nelson’s football roots go, one has only to ask him about his early childhood. Nelson’s father was a standout defensive back at Jackson State who also had stints in the NFL and CFL in the mid to late 90s’. Nelson remembers telling his dad as a child that he would exceed his level of play as a football player.
“I think I was like three years old and I told him, Dad I’m going to be better than you when I get older,’” Nelson said. “I’ve definitely been trying to live up to that.”
Not only did his father’s football career influence him to pursue football himself, but what the elder Nelson did off the field academically also influenced Nelson, a graduate of local Oak Grove High School, to take school seriously. Nelson’s father earned his doctorate after his football career, and Nelson thinks getting an education is vital for securing a future after football.
Indeed, Nelson has taken academics seriously while at Southern Miss. Nelson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business/finance in the fall of 2017 and was named to the Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll in 2015 and 2016. Nelson was also a semifinalist for the William Campbell Trophy in 2017, which is awarded by the National Football Federation to the top football scholar-athlete in the country. Now, Nelson is tackling a new challenge as a graduate student, as he is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration through the College of Business and Economic Development.
Being a leader is another aspect of life that Nelson takes seriously. In April, Nelson was selected for the University’s Best Citizen Award, becoming the first Southern Miss athlete to do so since 2007. The award is given to students that “demonstrate servant leadership, selfless giving to the university and to fellow students, exemplary citizenship, and serve as a positive role model to their peers and in the community.”
Nelson said he was excited to receive the award and stated that respect for others is an important part of his attitude every day.
“I’ve kind of always been myself no matter, as I’ve excelled in football I’ve always treated everybody the same, treated everybody with respect,” Nelson said. “If I’m in a class, I’m not going to let anybody get picked on, not going to let anybody talk disrespectful to the teacher. I’ve always kind of been that way.”
Nelson noted how others have been affected by his positive attitude.
“As an athlete, when people look up to you, they follow you, so I’ve just kind of really been myself, and I guess that has kind of influenced others around me to notice that and kind of take that along,” Nelson said. “That’s really what I want people to know about me, no matter where you see me when you see me I’m going to always be myself.”
Now, as the season opener against his father’s alma mater Jackson State nears, Nelson readies for his first game action since the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Dec 17, 2016. When asked about how witnessing game day from the sidelines felt last season, Nelson did not hold back in saying how he struggled with it.
“[It was] really tough. And I actually thought it wasn’t going to be as tough whenever I got hurt but it was extremely tough,” Nelson said. “Every game day was definitely the toughest day of the week, even though I was definitely happy that my brothers were playing, but I was hurt because I wasn’t able to play with them. But I’m here now. I’m definitely able to play another year, so I’m definitely grateful.”
Nelson’s talent and on-field influence to the Southern Miss defensive backfield in 2018 is an important asset for the team, but he will also be counted on to be a veteran mentor to a unit that has to replace 2017 seniors Curtis Mikell, Jomez Applewhite, Kelsey Douglas and NFL Draft picks Tarvarius Moore and Cornell Armstrong.
Co-defensive coordinator and Derek Nicholson said that Nelson’s leadership and ability to teach younger players about how to prepare for game day is a big asset.
“I think it’s vital because he’s a senior, and he’s been a three-year starter for us, Nicholson said. “He can give those younger guys some tips and keys as far as how to go about preparing throughout the week, teaching those guys how to watch film from a player’s standpoint when the coaches are not around, teaching those guys how to take care of their bodies and being able to withstand the grind throughout the season so you know more so mentally, and off the field, his importance is vital for that back end because a lot of these guys are going through this in this form and fashion for the first time in their career.”
With the itch to get back on the field growing, Nelson is eager to step up his game to an even higher level than what it was in 2016. He knows that the stakes are high and his teammates are counting on him to keep up a high level of play in what is currently an inexperienced and young secondary.
“I definitely feel like I can do way better than I did that year on so many levels,” Nelson said. “I definitely plan to play my best game every game. Whenever I do that, the team will definitely be better as a whole.”