October 19, 2018
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A sprinter has become UMaine football’s secret weapon on special teams

Ronald Gillis | UMaine Athletics
Ronald Gillis | UMaine Athletics
Mozai Nelson (23) of the University of Maine celebrates after sacking Western Kentucky quarterback Drew Eckels during their Sept. 8 football game at Bowling Green, Ky. The senior from New York has excelled in his role as a special-teams leader and backup linebacker.

ORONO, Maine — Mozai Nelson isn’t one of the better-known players on the University of Maine football roster.

That’s because the senior doesn’t start on offense or defense.

He is, however, a valuable contributor on special teams, where he earned All-Colonial Athletic Association first-team honors a year ago. He also was a preseason All-CAA and All-America second-team special-teams performer.

Nelson, who plays on all of UMaine’s special teams except the field goal unit, was involved in 16 tackles in eight games and blocked two punts last season.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Nelson, is also an important asset in third-down situations as an extra defensive back.

“He is a huge asset,” UMaine special teams coordinator Jared Keyte said. “He’s a leader who practices hard and plays hard. We use him in a lot of different ways. He obviously has speed. And his ability to get to the football makes him more dynamic than other guys.”

Nelson registered his first two career sacks in UMaine’s 31-28 victory over Football Bowl Subdivision team Western Kentucky. He was in on six tackles and forced a fumble.

“Two sacks and he only played on third down. That’s pretty good,” UMaine head coach Joe Harasymiak said.

Nelson, who is a sprinter on the Black Bears’ indoor and outdoor track and field teams, made a tackle in UMaine’s season-opening 35-7 win over archrival New Hampshire.

Keyte said Nelson is an outstanding blocker and is able to go full throttle on special teams because he is playing fewer reps.

“He’s an unsung player but he’s not unsung to us,” said junior running back Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth. “He is a huge special-teams guy. He’s very fast, and he flies around the field whenever he’s out there.”

Nelson, who hails from Uniondale, New York, said he embraces his roles and doesn’t complain about not being a defensive starter.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been a special-teams player. It’s the best part of the game for me,” Nelson said. “Running down on a kickoff trying to tackle someone … it doesn’t get any better than that.”

He acknowledges that special-teams play is a facet of the game people tend to overlook.

“The offense scores the football, the defense wins games, but special-teams can flip the field. They can score on dynamic plays like kickoff and punt returns,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the key to being a productive special teams player is, “attitude, effort and execution. Mainly, I would say it’s effort.”

He said he looks up to special-teams standouts such as the New England Patriots’ Matthew Slater, a seven-time Pro Bowl pick.

“He knows his role on the team and takes it seriously,” Harasymiak said. “You need guys like that. He is so explosive, and he always makes plays for us. He provides so much energy.”

Nelson redshirted in 2014 and made six tackles in three games in 2015 before suffering a season-ending injury. In 2016, he had six tackles in seven games and recovered a fumble for a touchdown against Stony Brook.

Nelson, a standout defensive back and sprinter at Saint Anthony’s High School, chose UMaine because it was his only scholarship offer.

“I love it here,” said Nelson, who also enjoys being able to run track during the offseason.

“It doesn’t get much better than being able to play football and run track here. At the end of the day, this is where God wanted me, and I’m trying to make the best of it,” Nelson said.

Nelson said it is a long season and the Black Bears can’t become complacent.

“We’ve got to stay humble. Maybe we caught the other teams by surprise,” said Nelson, who doesn’t expect anyone to take them lightly now.

The Black Bears visit FBS team Central Michigan at 3 p.m. Saturday.

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