GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Quarterback Philip Nelson is out to make the most of his chance at East Carolina.
The 22-year-old former starter at Minnesota looks to redeem himself with the Pirates, more than two years after he was involved in a nightclub fight that left a former college football player with a serious brain injury and led to his dismissal from Rutgers without playing a regular-season game.
Nelson declined to discuss the specifics of his case because of a pending civil suit. He said Saturday that he’s grateful for another chance and wants to focus on the future.
Going through it “has completely made me a better person, and I’m happy with where I am as a football player and as a human being right now,” Nelson said during media day.
Nelson walked onto the team in August 2015 and sat out that season because of the transfer. New coach Scottie Montgomery gave him both a scholarship and the starting job at quarterback this spring.
“It’s very clear who the leader of this team is,” said Montgomery, referring to Nelson. Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen called him “perfect” for how he wants the air-it-out Pirates to play.
“He can do it all. There’s nothing about Philip that doesn’t fit our offense,” he said. “He’s exactly what I would recruit every day.”
Nelson threw for 2,179 yards and 17 touchdowns while starting 16 games for the Golden Gophers from 2012-13. His rise to the top of East Carolina’s depth chart came partly because of his strong spring and in part because some competitors left the program.
Blake Kemp, who threw for 2,653 yards last season, transferred to Northern Arizona. Kurt Benkert, who would have been the starter in 2015 had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury before the opener, left after spring ball for Virginia and a reunion with ex-East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill.
Nelson said he expected to compete with Benkert through preseason camp for the job and was surprised that he left.
But if anyone could relate, Nelson could: He originally transferred from Minnesota to Rutgers after the 2013 season, hoping to play in a more pass-friendly system. He only played 2014 spring football at Rutgers before the night in May that changed several lives.
Witnesses to the nightclub fight in Minnesota told investigators that Nelson shoved former Minnesota State-Mankato player Isaac Kolstad after mistaking him for a bouncer that kissed his girlfriend. Kolstad knocked Nelson to the ground, but a third man punched Kolstad in the head and Nelson then kicked Kolstad in the head. Kolstad suffered a brain injury that required emergency surgery and spent months recovering at the Mayo Clinic.
Nelson was kicked off the team at Rutgers two days after the fight and was charged with felony first- and third-degree assault. He pleaded to a misdemeanor fifth-degree assault charge and was sentenced to two days of jail time already served and 100 hours of community service. Three doctors reported a lack of medical certainty as to whether Nelson’s kick caused Kolstad’s brain injury.
McNeill brought him to East Carolina, and Nelson climbed the depth chart during his first spring with Montgomery.
“You learn a lot about life through that,” Nelson said. “To be able to come back here and meet these players and coaches and everyone that comes with this community, it’s kind of reassuring to me to know that people do appreciate me and like me for who I am. I’m not some person that some other media have made me out to be.”
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