University of Akron QB Kato Nelson is back, healthy and looking good, so far

George M. Thomas
Akron Beacon Journal
University of Akron quarterback Kato Nelson is back healthy after missing the 2020 season with a shoulder injury. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

One of the most surprising things thus far at the University of Akron’s spring practice is seeing No. 1 on the field flinging passes with relative ease.

Given an extra year of eligibility, quarterback Kato Nelson should have been a prime candidate to enter the transfer protocol and take his talents elsewhere.

But there he is. Throwing passes on a rope, moving in the pocket and generally looking good after shoulder surgery.

“It was real tough, but the biggest thing for me was trying to coach up my teammates, coach up Zach [Gibson], that’s my boy and I think that’s what made it easier for me,” he said of missing last season. “I felt like I was still part of the team by being around the guys.”

Looking good in spring practice is one thing, doing so in the fall is different and there’s no guarantee that he’ll reclaim the Zips' starting job with the season kicks off. Gibson gained experience the past two seasons with 10 starts and newcomer DJ Irons, all 6-foot-6 of him, promises to add to the interesting nature of the UA quarterback room.

Nelson is undaunted after spending those six games of last fall’s truncated season on the sideline. So far, he said, he’s throwing the ball well with no soreness and the shoulder is back.

“I’m back because it's where I want to be,” he said when asked about his return and not pursuing other opportunities. “I think I have unfinished business here at Akron. The season I did start, we went 0-12 and I just don’t want to go out like that.”

He confesses that first season with then new coach Tom Arth’s system was a lot to handle. 

“Even though I felt comfortable, I wouldn’t say I was as comfortable as I am now. The third year in the offense, and being able to play now, it’s real simple,” he said. “Having that year just to evaluate, when I didn’t play, really had me more engaged with the offense and more hands on with [other] positions. I feel like I have a real grip on the offense.”

Arth said the time on the sideline observing the offense might be a big boost for Nelson.  He should know; it’s something he experienced in his first year with the Indianapolis Colts after undergoing shoulder surgery.

“I remember [Colts coach] Jim Caldwell saying, ‘If we all had been coaches and then players, how much better we would have been.’ That was kind of the opportunity Kato had last year was to sit back, not have to worry about performing,” Arth said. “It’s just about mastering the offense, knowing where to go with the football and understanding the protection and all those things. I would anticipate he’s sharper with all of that heading into the spring.”

It’s a case of so far, so good for Nelson, Arth said.

“We’ve been spreading the reps out relatively evenly throughout practice and it’s been really good to see,” he said. “All these quarterbacks are competing and Kato’s done a really nice job. He’s healed up. He’s healthy now. He looks like a much different player than he looked trying to come back last season when he was a little bit banged up.”

Of course, that’s been an issue during his time at UA. He has taken his share of hits that may have inhibited his play. Sometimes it was his fault. Other times, blame fell to the line.

That is where he sees one of the key differences in his teammates. The offensive line looks vastly different with this regime preferring taller, longer linemen. And they’re continuing to bulk up, mostly due to Deonte Mack, director of athletic performance, both Arth and Nelson said. The truncated season was also good for their development.

“There is more confidence there and I’d also like to say there’s also more experience,” Nelson said. “They’ve just been more dedicated to protecting us because they know they haven’t been at their best these last couple of years.”

Nelson acknowledges there was plenty of rust to shake off in returning to the field, and there’s still not been any game time.

“Like I said, I haven’t played since 2019,” he said. “My first practice back, I could tell I had to catch up to the speed a little bit. That’s the biggest thing for me, just catching up on my speed and getting back to myself.”

But as the rust comes off, his confidence returns. Call it the unfinished business. Call it wanting to realize the player-of-the-year potential he’s always possessed. He has plans for 2021 as everyone hopes normalcy returns.

“Yes, I’m expecting to be the starter,” he said when asked if he will assume a familiar role.

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