After redshirting his freshman year, Shawn Nelson wanted out. Out of Southern Mississippi, out of the Golden Eagles offense and out of tight end. Recruited as a receiver out of high school by a handful of other Division I schools, Nelson had a big decision to make after the transition to tight end proved a bit more trying than he had anticipated.
Working in a balanced offense Nelson longed for more opportunities to catch the ball.
"I didn't play tight end until I got to college," said Nelson. "My first year I wanted to bail out. I thought about transferring to Louisiana Tech and Florida because they both ran the spread offense."
Nelson felt he gave the position change a fair shot over the course of his redshirt freshman season.
"I didn't resist it at first," said Nelson. "I bought into it, went to practice and did whatever they asked me to do."
But frustrated by the demands of the new role and being unable to excel the same way he did at receiver Nelson wrestled with the direction of his football future. Ultimately, he decided to stick it out. He would stay at Southern Miss.
The green tight end didn't dislike playing tight end as much as he disliked not being an impact player, something he expected to be right away for the Golden Eagles. Playing in a conventional offense Nelson saw the ball infrequently. Knowing his opportunities with the ball in his hands were going to be limited, Nelson made a commitment to himself.
"I just told myself I'll go out to practice and if they gave me the ball I was just going to embarrass anybody I could," he said. "And I did it a few times and they saw that I could be a factor in the passing game."
The coaching staff responded, splitting Nelson out a bit in the slot at times in an effort to call his number more often. All the while the tight end worked diligently on his blocking to bring it up to a level equal to his receiving exploits.
"I had played receiver all my life until I got to Southern Miss," Nelson said. "I think it helped me with coming out with speed and explosion off the line as a blocker. So I just worked hard to be consistent with my blocking and getting that total package at tight end."
By the close of his redshirt freshman season he had 35 catches for 540 yards (15.4 avg) and five touchdowns. Come the end of the following year Nelson earned first-team Conference USA honors as voted by the league's coaches. As a junior, Nelson was named the most physical tight end in Conference USA by the Sporting News.
Then the offensive scheme that Nelson longed to play in throughout his college career became a reality for him as a senior.
"Our coach got fired and they brought in Larry Fedora from Oklahoma State with the spread offense," said Nelson. "It was wonderful my senior year and I was able to split out and put my hand down on the line where I was blocking and receiving at both positions. I would not only run the tight end routes, but I'd stand up as a slot receiver and get down the field as well. Coach Fedora saw what I could do so he wanted to utilize me as much as he could."
Nelson would set a career high for receptions in a season with 53, which was also a school record for a tight end. His 557 receiving yards was also a career best.
What opened Buffalo's eyes however, was how reliable he had become as an all-around tight end.
"His jump in consistency from his junior to senior year was tremendous," said Bills scout Shawn Heinlen. "He had a lot of chances to make big plays as a junior and did not. His senior year he was the focal point of the offense where he was the go-to guy time in and time out. In the Auburn game on every pass play they knew every play was going to him and they still weren't able to stop him. For him to be able to do that is his strength."
The move to tight end was anything but easy for Nelson, but the former receiver chose the tougher road and in the end was rewarded for it.
"I ended up sticking it out and I had a great career at Southern Miss," said Nelson. "I think it was in God's plan for me to stay and play tight end and I'm glad I did."