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Never a star, eating once 'was my job' for little-known Lion Matt Nelson

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

If you didn't know the name Matt Nelson prior to the Detroit Lions' win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, you weren't alone. 

Unless you're a die-hard, it's likely you didn't even know Nelson was on the Lions' roster. After all, you're talking about an undrafted free agent who spent his rookie season on the practice squad while making the difficult switch from defensive line to offensive line. And he didn't have the benefit of a preseason in 2020 to showcase the rapid improvements he made en route to earning a job out of training camp. 

Matt Nelson

But with injuries piling up in the first half, the team had little choice but to turn to Nelson, putting more than a year's worth of development to the test. And all things considered, he held up his end of the bargain, stepping in and performing adequately in 42 snaps at right tackle in the 34-16 victory. 

Even at the University of Iowa, Nelson was far from a star. In terms of honors, he got more recognition for his academics than his on-field performance, earning All-Big Ten honors all four years for the former and only honorable mention for his play once, as a senior. 

And while his 6-foot-7, 295-pound frame was enough to generate some NFL interest, only the Lions called with a proposal to flip him to offense. 

"They reached out to me in the pre-draft process and were like, 'Hey, we don't really see you as a defensive lineman. Would you mind switching over to the offensive line?'" Nelson explained. "Kind of went over like the bare-bones plan of, 'OK, you're going to come in, essentially redshirt you. We don't see you playing at all the first year. We're going to put some weight on you. You're going to learn how to play offensive line,' and essentially go from there."

Even though it was an unconventional suggestion, the fact the Lions actually presented a plan for him was enough of a selling point for Nelson to roll the dice. 

Once he arrived in Detroit, one of his top priorities was bulking up. As he explained it, former offensive line coach Jeff Davidson told them there was no way he'd put a guy weighing under 300 pounds on the field. 

Matt Nelson during the 2018 season at Iowa.

And so Nelson, 24, got on a routine that involved four days in the weight room and a lot of extra eating. So much extra, he couldn't even keep track of all the protein, carbs and calories he was putting away each day. 

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

But those efforts paid off with a job this season, even if part of the cost was gentle ribbing from his wife, Hayley, poking fun at the extra pounds he was packing on. 

It only seems fair Hayley gets to have some fun at Matt's expense. As he tells it, she's the biggest reason he's even in the NFL. In high school, he was thinking about giving up football to pursue basketball. He was a decent big man who fielded a handful of Division I offers. But Hayley, then his girlfriend, told him it was a bad idea. 

"My wife was the big one that essentially was like, 'You'd be stupid if quit football,'" Nelson said. "From early on, she's always been very, very truthful and very, very blunt with me."

A three-year starter at Iowa, Nelson admits he entertained the idea of playing offensive tackle there, but the reality is he probably never would have seen the playing time he did on defense.

The school has a knack for producing NFL talent along the offensive line and four of the six tackles he played have spent time in the NFL, including Tristan Wirfs, who was a first-round pick this last year. And Alaric Jackson, who is still at the school, could be an early-round selection this year. 

So Nelson took the unconventional route, making the extraordinarily difficult transition as a pro. 

Prior to Sunday, the Lions had sprinkled him into a few packages on offense and special teams, just to give him a taste, but the game against Jacksonville was his first true test.  

"Yeah, I just think it’s a cool story," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "He has done a great job of accepting the position change and then working to get better at it. You know, it was something that was not comfortable to him and I think the coaches, you’ve got to give credit to Hank (Fraley, offensive line coach) and Billy (Yates, assistant offensive line coach) with the work that they’ve done, even Jeff (Davidson) last year, to get him to the point where he’s at, so that he can actually be a functioning offensive lineman.

"I think this past offseason here was really where he made his biggest jump," Bevell continued. "He did it physically. He changed his body, did a nice job there. But then the light switch starts to come on just in terms of some of the technique, some of the footwork and he’s made himself into a solid offensive tackle right now."

With the starting group looking relatively healthy heading into this weekend's game against Atlanta, Nelson will slip back into the background where he'll continue to develop and await his next opportunity. 

And if this football thing doesn't work out, a career in medicine might await. 

Not unlike former Lions players Laken Tomlinson and Zach Zenner, Nelson still holds ambitions to become a doctor down the road. He even worked in a research lab while at Iowa.

"I've always been interested in science, ever since I was little," Nelson said. "I either wanted to play football or I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to actually be an orthopedic surgeon. For the longest time, I wanted to be a team doctor, so if I could be like a team doctor in the NFL. That would be sweet.

"Throughout life, I've always wanted to be involved with sports and all that sort of stuff, and that was another avenue to do that," he said. "I definitely realize football is going to end at some point, and so what else interested me?

For now, that dream can wait while he lives out the other. 

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers