When Jack Nelson plays his final game in a Winona State University uniform, he'll hold just about every significant passing record in the history of the football team.
He may own some in the NSIC, too.
But the 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback from Byron, Minn., will tell you time and time again that those records don’t mean as much to him as they do to others. That he just happens to play in an offense that chucks the ball around a lot, and he’s the one doing the chucking. That there are other things that mean more, like winning football games.
One of the most prolific players to wear the purple and white of WSU is entering his final season, and all he wants to do is win.
“I always thought those records are more for my family,” said Nelson, who holds WSU career marks for yards (8,977), touchdowns (78) and completions (636). “I’m more worried about the team record. I’d love to go undefeated, or get this team into postseason play. That’s all I’m focused on.”
The first step toward steering the Warriors’ ship in the right direction began Thursday, when Nelson and his buddies went through the first practice of the 2016 season. Time has flown by for the quarterback, who was thrust into action as a starter in the second game of his true freshman season in 2013. He's since spent every game making life miserable for NSIC defensive coordinators.
He posted a 6-4 record as a starter in 2013, but WSU dipped to 4-7 the following year when Nelson was sacked an NSIC-high 38 times. Last year, Nelson stayed upright, and the Warriors won some big games — including an upset of then-No. 1 Minnesota State on the road. But they finished 5-6, and while Nelson set record after record, they all seemed to come in losses.
Nelson’s record as a starter — his fault or not — is 15-17.
“It’s his record,” said WSU coach Tom Sawyer, who’s entering his 21st season. “That’s the way everyone looks at it. It’s his record. I told him that he and I share the same thing — the record.”
That’s why this season, more than any other, Nelson is taking strides to make sure the losing stops — and that doesn’t just mean working on his throws and his footwork.
It means being vocal in the huddle. In the film room. In the weight room. It means working with young receivers, young linemen, young running backs. It means talking with the other seniors in the offense — wide receiver Cameron Johnson and running back Paul Preston included — to make sure everyone is on the same page and their unit is firing on all cylinders.
“You can see he’s leading everyone now,” said Preston, who was third in the NSIC in rushing last year with 976 yards. “He’s a coach out here. Whenever there’s a coaching point, he can provide that now.”
He didn’t do that in the past, mainly because he didn’t need to. The WSU offense had vocal leaders like Alan May or Theo Burkett to handle that part. Nelson’s job was to throw it deep and let a receiver run under it and catch it.
That’s no longer the case, and Nelson is thriving in his new role.
“He’s just grown into it,” Sawyer said. “He’s still a little quiet, but now everyone listens. Over the last year, when Jack speaks, they listen.”
When he talks with the team, it’s mostly focused on things they can do to get better on the field. To eliminate mistakes. To take another step toward getting ready for the season opener against Minnesota Crookston on Sept. 1.
“Guys are hungry,” Nelson said. “We’re ready to get going.”
It could be a big year for Nelson. He’s 2,604 yards away from becoming the all-time leader in passing yards. That’s a little less than 237 yards per game — he averaged 308.1 ypg as a junior and 276.5 ypg for his career.
But it could also be big for his future. Tyrant Scouting rated Nelson as the No. 2 pro prospect among all D-II quarterbacks, and Nelson has talked with NFL scouts about a career after college.
“I definitely plan to try to do that when I’m done,” Nelson said. “But right now I’m focused on this.
“I’m just going to keep playing my game. Hopefully get some more wins for this team. When the time comes, I’ll worry about (the pros).”
Nelson hasn’t backed down from any challenge during his WSU career. His first start came in the rain on the road against a team that went to the D-II national quarterfinals. WSU had a fourth-quarter lead against St. Cloud State but lost in the final minute. He played half the 2014 season with a broken bone in his hand but didn’t miss a start. He put his team in position to win time and time again in 2015.
And now he has a new role, that of senior leader, and it’s one he’s embracing with open arms.
“You can tell, he’s a much more mature kid,” Sawyer said. “You look at him now, he knows he has some possibilities of having a big year and changing our program back to where it should be. He’s taking that on. He said, ‘Let’s go.'"