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Former Sumter High School standout offensive lineman Zion Nelson has only been at the University of Miami for a few months, but he's already set to make history when he takes the field in the Hurricanes' season opener on the road against No. 8 Florida on Saturday.
Nelson will be the first freshman to start at left tackle in the history of the program.
Freshmen rarely get this type of opportunity. Three-star freshmen recruits never get this opportunity. Nelson has beaten the odds, however, and will be charged with protecting the blind side of fellow freshman and quarterback Jarren Williams.
"It was one of those deals where you're like, 'He might be our best guy there. Let's put the freshman in and let's kind of see what happens,' " Miami head football coach Manny Diaz told The Athletic on Tuesday.
What makes Nelson's story even more surprising is the fact Miami didn't offer him until December of 2018. He had been committed to Appalachian State for several months, but when he went to Miami on a visit and was offered, he changed to the Hurricanes, signed a few days later and enrolled at the school in January.
Nelson continued to prove himself over the summer and into fall practice and officially won the starting job this week. The news was a surprise to many, including his own mother.
"It has been a whirlwind ever since Miami started recruiting him," Beverly Nelson said on Tuesday. "He was all set to go to Appalachian State, then Miami started talking to him. I thought that was really too far to drive, but he told me that's what he really wanted to do. I supported him, but it made me a little nervous.
"I didn't think he would play this year so that would give me a chance to save up some money and travel when he starts playing. But when he told me there was a chance he might start, I started trying to prepare for it."
Beverly Nelson found out Zion would be starting on Saturday when her daughter saw the depth chart. She talked to him later.
"He told me he was excited," she said. When asked if Zion, who has a stoic demeanor, sounded excited, Beverly said, "He rarely sounds excited about anything. He is very calm about everything."
Nelson was one of the top high school offensive linemen in the state of South Carolina last season. He played in the Shrine Bowl and was selected to The Sumter Item All-Area Team. He graded out at 84% with 33 knockdowns for Sumter in the 2018 season.
Nelson ended his senior season at Sumter at 245 pounds, extremely undersized for a BCS offensive lineman. However, he has added 30 pounds to his 6-foot-6-inch frame, bulking up to 275 pounds. That has something to do with how he was able to make such a significant jump in a short time.
Nelson spoke about his weight gain to Inside the U back in May, saying "Something that probably really helped me was at night I would eat Subway and drink a couple of Gatorade protein shakes. That's part of what it was."
"When he was going through the recruiting process I told everyone that Zion had an unbelievable amount of athletic ability, and was a great practice player, and great effort guy," said Sumter head coach Mark Barnes. "The only question was whether or not he could put on weight. When he came back home he looked great. That was the missing ingredient for him. There was no doubt in our mind he could play at a very, very high level."
Barnes also spoke of how much it means to him to hear how well Zion has practiced since he's been in Miami.
"We had a tremendous amount of confidence in Zion," said Barnes. "The thing that makes me the proudest about him is not the fact that he's starting, but the fact that when the coaches comment on him they talk about how good of a practice player he is, and how hard a worker he is. As a head coach that's what you want your ex-players to do."
Fans can watch Nelson and the Hurricanes take on the eighth-ranked Gators at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN and serve as the official opener of the 2019 college football season.
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