When Damien Nash reached the end zone after dancing his way through the Colorado defense for a 48-yard touchdown reception Saturday, he breathed a sigh of relief.
“It felt good,” Nash said. “It felt like me back again. I just felt like myself again. It felt really good.”
When they saw Nash’s run, whether live or on the highlight reel, Missouri football fans likely breathed a similar sigh, if they had any breath left.
Nash finally showed the playmaking ability Missouri fans were promised when he came out of high school and again when he arrived at Missouri after two tumultuous seasons at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.
For Nash and Tigers fans alike, the touchdown run symbolized the end of a frustrating period and represented the start of a promising future.
Nash, a sophomore, was a highly touted recruit out of East St. Louis, and he became one of coach Gary Pinkel’s first prized recruits. Immediately, Nash was tagged with titles such as “savior of the program.”
“Here’s a guy who was a superstar in high school,” Pinkel said. “He could go out there and that’s his canvas. When he’s got that ball in his hands, he can do about anything he wanted to do.”
A rough start
When a low ACT score landed Nash in Coffeyville, everything was put on hold. Nash sat out his first year at Coffeyville, learning the ropes as a redshirt and saving the year of eligibility for his inevitable arrival in Columbia.
Finally, the redshirt year was over, and Nash was ready to play. He took the opening kickoff of his first game at Coffeyville and took off with his trademark burst of speed.
Nash tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and was lost for the season. The frustration continued, and the timetable was set back again.
So when Nash finally played in a Missouri uniform against Illinois on Aug. 30, he hadn’t played in a game in 2 1/2 years. That didn’t stop Tigers fans’ high expectations, but it slowed Nash’s ability to fulfill them.
Trying to measure up
The criticisms were rampant. He dances too much. Just hit the hole.
Nash said the time he spent rehabbing his knee instead of playing football caused his decision-making ability to suffer.
“When I first started getting back into football, I didn’t make my decisions fast enough,” Nash said. “That’s what caused me to dance a little too much in the backfield. Now I’m getting comfortable with it.”
Nash and the Missouri coaching staff remained patient, though. The patience paid off and so did the dancing. Against Colorado, Nash caught a screen pass from Brad Smith and turned upfield. Several times, he looked to be in danger of being tackled, but he danced. Then, he danced some more, all the way to the end zone.
“I kept telling people that he was getting better every week,” Pinkel said. “You saw him catch that screen pass. That’s the guy. That’s the guy we saw in high school."
Taking time to grow
To get back to that point, Nash needed to put in a lot of hard work rehabbing his knee, learning a new offense and, most of all, learning to be patient, which Nash said was the most difficult task. His knee got stronger, he became more comfortable in Missouri’s offense and the training wheels were ready to come off.
Defensive lineman Atiyyah Ellison, who played at Coffeyville during Nash’s redshirt season, said he has noticed that Nash runs harder and takes coaching better than he did in his first season at Coffeyville.
“He was kind of quick tempered when he first got down to Coffeyville,” Ellison said. “Now I can see him taking coaching and taking advice from people.”
Ellison said he doesn’t think Nash would have been able to get back to where he is as a player if he hadn’t learned that discipline and patience.
Nash’s newfound patience has also helped him cope with being a backup. He has played sparingly this season, substituting for senior tailback Zack Abron.
Playing a backup role is something Nash had never had to do before coming to Missouri.
“I can’t really let that bother me,” Nash said. “Zack has been here a longer time than me, he knows the offense more than I do and he’s put in more work than I have. He deserves to be the starting man, and anytime they call my name, I’ll be ready to go.”
Nash is well aware that Abron will depart after this season and that he is Abron’s apparent successor at tailback. When the inevitable transition takes place, Missouri fans will have two full years of opportunities to see more of the jaw-dropping ability Nash showed Saturday at Colorado.
Then, everyone can see what Nash knows about himself.
“Oh yeah, I’m a good dancer,” Nash said. “I love to make defenders miss. I don’t like to get touched when I’m going to the end zone.”