University of Utah sophomore transfer Josh Nurse made an 180-degree shift from wide receiver to free safety this week. A raw play-maker as a wide receiver, he’ll now change gears from trying to make defensive backs’ lives miserable to attempting to stifle the passing game.
Utes defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said he’d seen “good signs” from Nurse in practice. Specifically, Scalley pointed to his range, athleticism and ball skills before he added, “That’s always transferred well to the free safety spot.”
If nothing else, the Utes know this little-known junior college recruit who didn’t play in a single game last season, will bring a take no prisoners approach with him to the position.
The lanky 6-foot-4, 195-pound Nurse willed himself into a Division I scholarship offer despite having to convince a junior college program to even let him walk-on a year ago. He spent all last season as a scout team player for Blinn College in Texas. He wasn’t allowed to suit up with his teammates on game days, much less play, but he still caught the attention of Scalley.
“He’s just one of those guys who is hard-working, driven. He’s just self-motivated,” Blinn co-defensive coordinator Eddie Jones Jr. said of Nurse. “He knew his work. He knew his role when he got on the team. He understood. He just had that chip on his shoulder, that ‘I’m not going to stop until I get what I want.’”
Nurse, a Georgia resident, wasn’t recruited by Blinn. He spent his freshman season at Georgia Military College where he played sparingly. He didn’t have any connection to the coaches or players in the Blinn program, which has produced 88 junior college All-Americans including Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Nurse transferred anyway and went to two tryouts for Blinn, one before spring practice started and one before preseason camp. After the second tryout, he still had no assurances he’d be on the team.
“My thing was to our head coach at the time coach [Keith] Thomas was to see if we could bring him out and if he doesn’t play for us or get on the bus, at least we could get him some film and when coaches came out in the spring time they could take a look at him,” Jones said.
UTAH SAFETY BREAKDOWN
Weight: 195 pounds
Briefly: Played in six games on special teams last season. The coaching staff has been touting his improvement during preseason camp. He’s stepped into free safety spot with Ballard at strong safety.
Weight: 205 pounds
Briefly: Ballard was a junior college All-American and his conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year at Blinn College. The projected starter at free safety, Ballard has been playing strong safety during preseason camp with Chase Hansen out.
Weight: 185 pounds
Briefly: A junior college All-American as a linebacker at Dodge City Community College, Blair has been learning the strong safety position during preseason camp.
Weight: 220 pounds
Briefly: The former quarterback turned strong safety led the Utes in tackles last season. He also started one game at linebacker. He’s the lone returning starter in the secondary, but has been sidelined during camp with an undisclosed injury.
Weight: 195 pounds
Briefly: Late signing out of Blinn College where he redshirted as a walk-on wide receiver, Nurse recently converted to safety where his skill set seems to be a natural fit though he’s just starting to learn the position.
Jones, a former player at the University of Texas who spent time with the New York Jets and the St. Louis Rams in the NFL, coordinates the redshirt program at Blinn. Jones saw Division I potential in Nurse’s mix of length, speed and ability to go up and snatch the ball out of the air.
“You don’t get guys like that — that can move the way he moves and do the things he does,” Jones said.
Junior college teams in Texas can only certify 10 players who are either transfers or from out of state to be on their roster. Blinn didn’t certify Nurse, but he got a chance to be part of Blinn’s scout team, a group of practice players there for the sole purpose of getting the starting players ready for that week’s game.
Since he joined the Utah program so late in the summer, Nurse has not been made available for interviews during camp. However, Nurse spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune after committing to Utah late last month.
“Since I couldn’t play, I decided to go all out in practice and show them why they should’ve let me play,” Nurse said.
Nurse regularly went up against Blinn defensive backs recruited by Power 5 programs, including Utah recruit and projected starting safety Corrion Ballard. Nurse left an impression on Ballard, who joined the Utah program mid-year, as well as Scalley, who recruited Ballard.
“I never really expected them to recruit me,” Nurse said of Utah. “Their recruitment came out of the blue. One day Coach Scalley just hit me up. It just started from there. Corrion opened the door out of his own kindness. I never really knew he was going to do that.”
Nurse and Scalley built a relationship and kept in touch throughout the offseason leading up to the Utes offer over the summer, an offer which came without Nurse having visited campus or the Utes staff having seen him play in a game.
“The assistant coaches are out pounding the pavement, making evaluations and seeing the kids first-hand at practice and talking to the coaches,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That’s the most important part of our job — being good at that. You’ve got to put your trust in your assistant coaches that they’ve done their due diligence and researched the situation. When a coach like Morgan Scalley stands on the table for a guy, I’m going to listen.”
Nurse would likely have been among the third or fourth group of wide receivers on the Utes’ depth chart. With starting safety Chase Hansen sidelined by injury, the Utes came into camp pretty thin at the position. Even when Hansen returns, the Utes will now have a group of five players vying for time at those two spots.
The move also puts Nurse under the daily direction of Scalley, who coaches the Utes safeties and who advocated for giving a scholarship to the unheralded junior college walk-on with tantalizing potential.