He's not a blocker.
Those were the words that Bills fourth-round pick Shawn Nelson heard time and again in his first three years at Southern Miss. A converted wide receiver, Nelson had worked hard to bring his blocking skills to a level equal to his pass catching exploits. He was able to marginally improve each year, but it wasn't until a coaching staff change between his junior and senior year would set the table for impressive growth in Nelson's blocking game.
Larry Fedora was named the new head coach of the Golden Eagles in January of 2008 replacing Jeff Bower, who resigned. Fedora hired Barney Farrar to be his tight ends coach, but Farrar was diagnosed with cancer a short time later. Fedora would need to find a replacement.
Enter Kris Mangum, a tight end for 10 years with the Carolina Panthers. He had retired from the NFL just a year earlier. Mangum had already offered to be a volunteer coach, but in need of a full time position assistant, while Farrar underwent chemotherapy, Mangum was quickly promoted.
"I talked to coach Fedora and offered to volunteer for a season and I had no idea it would turn out where I'd coach tight ends," said Mangum. "But Barney was going through a lot of treatments."
Mangum's main pupil would be Shawn Nelson. The former NFL tight end was familiar with Nelson having attended a Southern Miss game the year before where the two were introduced.
The two quickly got to work on Nelson's blocking techniques that spring. Having served as Carolina's second tight end for his entire career behind Wesley Walls, Mangum knew the blocking game inside and out. But he was surprised to see how eager Nelson was to learn more about the part of his game that needed the most work.
"He took to the coaching right away," said Mangum. "He's got a great work ethic and it was evident right away that he wanted to be a better blocker. You showed him how to do it and he would do it and he would work at it because he wanted to get better."
Working on everything from hand placement to footwork to rolling his hips, Mangum and Nelson almost started from scratch.
"He taught me how to position myself on blocks," said Nelson. "He showed me how he was taught to block on certain plays and in different situations. That's how I learned how to play tight end and learned how to position myself on blocks and push the defensive end off the ball."
Nelson proved such a quick study that when the Golden Eagles needed the tough yards they ran behind their tight end.
"Even though we were a spread offense we were pretty balanced run to pass," said Mangum. "And every short yardage and goal line was run behind him. Where he lined up on goal line that's usually where we ran the ball. I was talking to a coach the other day of a team that we played last year and he was just bragging on Shawn and the way that he blocked."
"I wasn't known for (blocking) when I first got there because they always ran it away from me," said Nelson. "But coach Fedora and coach Mangum put faith in me and asked me to do something and I did it. I'm very coachable. When they ask me to do something I do it. When they'd ask me to block and wanted to run behind me I'd tell them, 'Come on let's get the job done. Let's do it.' And that's what we did."
By no means is Nelson a finely tuned blocker, but at the college level his athleticism helped make up for being a bit rough around the edges.
"He's such an amazing athlete and you see this on tape when you watch him," said Mangum. "Even when he's out of position when someone gets ready to disengage, he's such a good athlete that he's able to overcome it. I've always been told there's no reason a really great athlete shouldn't be able to block because blocking is nothing more than effort. And that's something that Shawn gives is effort. You can be limited in size and other things, but if you're an athlete and you're willing to block then you can block. He embraced it."
Of course Southern Miss still took advantage of Nelson's receiving abilities as he set career highs his senior year in receptions (53) and receiving yards (557).
"His greatest asset is his large catching radius," said Mangum. "The ball could be anywhere and the way his long arms can extend and get to the ball... you talk to a lot of quarterbacks and if you're running a 10-yard hook and the quarterback doesn't have to put it in a certain spot because the receiver has such long arms and such a wide radius it makes it easier for the quarterback and gives him confidence. Shawn has great hands. He's been blessed."
But Nelson feels his greatest blessing was having Mangum as his position coach for his final year of college. Worried that a coaching change and scheme change would hurt his draft stock it actually helped his overall game.
"Getting to know coach Mangum and working with him there was a big improvement in one year," said Nelson. "I thought my senior year there was more improvement in my game than my whole career at Southern Miss."
Mangum however, believes Nelson's improvement in his final college season is just the beginning of a long ascent as an all-around tight end.
"I truly believe that he has not scratched the surface of how good he can be," said Mangum. "He has a lot to improve on and he'll tell you that. But I'll be honest, it's rare to have a guy that can hold the point of attack against defensive ends and block and also run and stretch the field like he can. That coaching staff in Buffalo has a good player. I think they got themselves a good steal."
Mangum, who ultimately decided with four kids, that coaching isn't for him works in public relations for Magnolia State Bank in his native Mississippi. However, he talks to Nelson by phone about once a week. The two spoke shortly after Buffalo drafted Nelson.
"I talked to him and coach Mangum he's a real good guy and he'd do anything for me," said Nelson. "He told me congratulations and just told me to go out there and work hard."
"When I got to Southern Miss we didn't know each other that well and all of a sudden we formed a relationship. God blessed him with an extreme amount of talent and what he does with that is completely up to him," said Mangum. "He's in the league now and he has a job. Now how long he keeps that is up to him. I always tell him you get out of it what you put into it. I'm happy to have been able to coach a kid of that caliber. You could coach for a long time and not coach a kid with all the tools he has."
Mangum has promised Nelson that he'll attend a Bills game this fall to see his star pupil in action.
"He knows how hard he worked this last year to get to where he is and like I told him, I was drafted in the seventh round and played 10 years," said Mangum. "It's not necessarily where you get drafted, it's what you do once you get there. I believe the kid is going to work hard and he has the work ethic to stay there. He's not a guy that's content with just being drafted. He's truly a guy that wants to play as long as he can and be as good as he can."
Nelson however, is certain getting to this point would not have been possible without a 10-year NFL veteran in his corner.
"He's like a big brother or a father in that he's keeping me straight and I know he's just a phone call away," said Nelson. "I know he'll be there to support me and help me and just make sure I'm good with everything at this level."
"It was a pleasure coaching him," said Mangum. "I played for 10 years and he's a lot faster than I ever thought about being. I look forward to seeing him do it. He knows he has a lot of work and he's excited about it. I hope he comes in and gets off on the good foot and gets some confidence. That's one thing that the league is about is having confidence in yourself. If he can get some early confidence I think he can really help the team this year and contribute."