University of Washington

Patience may pay off for UW safety Fellner

The soft-spoken nature doesn't reveal a whole lot about Nate Fellner - certainly not the way he feels about playing NCAA Division I football or, more importantly, how well he thinks his skills match up with others.

But he might be a few days away from showing the world – or at least the Pacific-10 Conference – what he can do.

Last year at this time, Fellner was a running back at Clovis West High in Fresno, Calif., catching passes from Jeff Tuel, now the starting quarterback at Washington State.

Now, Fellner could be the Huskies’ starting free safety.

If Nate Williams isn’t cleared from his concussion later this week, or Greg Walker’s knee injury from Wednesday shuts him down indefinitely, Fellner would likely start alongside Victor Aiweya on Saturday night against Arizona at Husky Stadium – marking the fourth true freshman to start a game on offense or defense this season.

“That kid has really come on here the last three weeks,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “He got a lot more reps the last two weeks, not knowing that (injuries) would happen. He went out and had a great practice today.”

It’s a rash of misfortune that’s hard to explain but easy to calculate, said Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who saw the beginning of it Saturday night when starting free safety Justin Glenn broke his leg on a second-half play against Notre Dame.

“We’ve been at places where (this) time of the year – middle of the season, game No. 6 – you start getting guys banged up. It’s happened everywhere everybody’s been,” Holt said. “That’s why everybody has to stay in it mentally because you never know when you get your opportunities. That’s the neat thing about college football; you get guys to step up and see what they can do with the opportunity.”

Fellner is one of the few carryover recruits of former coach Tyrone Willingham. He is also the grandson of Jim Sweeney, the former coach at Montana State, Washington State and Fresno State.

When Sarkisian and his staff came on board late in the 2009 recruiting period, they notified Fellner his scholarship offer would be honored but under the condition that he might have to greyshirt – or enroll a semester late.

“It was a little hectic. There was a numbers problem (with scholarships),” Fellner said. “I just stayed patient. I was working out in Fresno.”

In May, UW safeties coach Jeff Mills contacted Fellner, and extended an invitation for him to join the team for preseason camp in August, meaning he would be on the team this season.

“I honestly didn’t want to greyshirt,” he said. “I think I was a better caliber (recruit) than that. They gave me an opportunity, and I was grateful for it.”

Fellner was on nobody’s radar screen – until mid-September. He was a quick learner. He’s got good size – 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. He certainly is athletic enough to be on the field. And slowly, coaches began integrating him into special-teams duties against Stanford and Notre Dame.

And on Monday, Sarkisian dropped the bombshell – Fellner would start being in the mix for playing time at free safety. It just wasn’t expected to materialize so soon.

Fellner should know for sure today after Williams is given a post-concussion test to see if he’s cleared, or coaches learn the severity of Walker’s knee injury, suffered in individual drills right before practice Wednesday.

In the meantime, he said he’ll start calling family members, putting them on alert to possibly come up for the game. One of those will be Sweeney.

“I haven’t been in touch with him for a while. When I do talk to him, he gives me great words of wisdom about football,” Fellner said. “He probably would be mad (if I didn’t call), so I’ll call him.”