How an Iowa DT became a Detroit Lions offensive lineman: 'Eating was my job'

Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read

The plan is ultimately what sold him, and Matt Nelson sure is glad it did.

Nelson played 46 snaps at right tackle Sunday in the Detroit Lions’ 34-16 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, completing a position change and body transformation that was 18 months in the making.

Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Iowa last spring, Nelson had never played offensive line until coming to Detroit.

Sweat drips from the nose of Lions offensive tackle Matt Nelson after joint training camp football practice with the Houston Texans on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Houston.
Sweat drips from the nose of Lions offensive tackle Matt Nelson after joint training camp football practice with the Houston Texans on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Houston.

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He started most of his final three seasons for the Hawkeyes at defensive end and had offers from several NFL teams to play that position, with the caveat that he could switch to offensive tackle — where he worked out at his pro day — if defense didn’t stick.

Lions general manager Bob Quinn never saw Nelson as a defensive lineman, though, and pursued him solely as an offensive tackle. He sent then-assistant offensive line coach Hank Fraley to work out Nelson before the draft, and the two eventually convinced Nelson his future was on the offensive line.

“Essentially it was like, ‘OK, this is my best opportunity at me playing football for a long time,’” Nelson said Thursday. “And after talking with family, my agent and everything like that, it was like, ‘OK, they’ve got a plan for you. They’re really willing to invest in you. I think we should do it.’ And I think it’s worked out great so far.”

The Lions’ plan included using 2019 essentially as a redshirt year to get Nelson stronger and help him learn the technique of his new position.

In high school, Nelson played tight end in a veer offense, where his blocking responsibilities were basically to “just cave in the side of the line.” When he lined up at offensive tackle for the first time as a pro, he was the rawest player on the field.

“I looked like I had never played offensive line before, and that was true when I first started,” he said. “And now I’m starting to look and feel like an offensive lineman.”

While playing as a scout team tackle last season, Nelson packed on 15 pounds, thanks to weight training sessions that focused on his core and upper body four times a week and a radical change in diet.

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Nelson said he ate “three or four solid meals” a day and spent the rest of the time snacking on foods loaded with protein, carbohydrates and fat. He ate PBJ sandwiches and drank protein shakes before most practices; by the end of the season, he had added about 15 pounds.

“Eating was my job at that point in my life,” he said.

Slowly — but quicker than anticipated — Nelson settled in at his new position, and even without the benefit of a formal offseason program, looked like a different player by the time training camp rolled around this summer.

He made the Lions’ initial 53-man roster out of camp, played as a sixth offensive lineman and on special teams the first four games of the season, and was tasked as Matthew Stafford’s front-side protector after right tackle Tyrell Crosby and right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai went out with dehydration against the Jaguars.

Former Iowa defensive lineman Matt Nelson (67) is now trying to make the Detroit Lions as an offensive tackle.
Former Iowa defensive lineman Matt Nelson (67) is now trying to make the Detroit Lions as an offensive tackle.

“Matt’s done an incredible job,” guard Joe Dahl said. “I think it’s just a testament to how smart he is. I don’t know if you guys know, but whenever he’s done with football I’m sure he’s going to try to be a doctor. That’s his plan as of right now. I think that’s a huge part of it and then his work ethic. When he made the transition he (threw himself) into it and he’s been asking questions to all the right people, and I know he talks to Deck (Taylor Decker) and Cros and Big V out there, just asking them for any technique work that they can give him. And I think that it really has paid off and I think he’s really coming along really well and excited to see where he goes moving forward.”

A biology and human physiology major at Iowa who worked in the school’s orthopedic and neurosurgery research lab, Nelson has put his medical aspirations on hold for now to see where football takes him.

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It’s a sport he almost gave up in high school to pursue basketball — he had scholarship offers from Rice, North Dakota, South Dakota and a few small schools, but was talked into sticking with football by his future wife — and a position he never imagined playing while at Iowa.

“I think at Iowa during the time I was there, (current NFL offensive linemen) Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal were the tackles, and when I was a young player it was Ike Boettger and Boone Myers, who are — Ike is still in the league, he plays for the Bills, and Boone was a very good tackle,” Nelson said. “And then when I was leaving it was Alaric Jackson, who’s there currently, and Tristan Wirfs (a first-round pick this year by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

“I don’t think I would have ever played (had I played tackle at Iowa). I’ve talked to them about it and they’re like, ‘Well, yeah, we thought about putting you at tackle, but we needed you on the defensive line.’ So it was just the fit at the time, and I honestly don’t know if I would have beaten any of those guys, but I’m kind of glad it happened the way it did.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions' Matt Nelson path to NFL: 'Eating was my job'