JACKSONVILLE (AP) - Reggie Nelson looked around the field and wondered why he was still in the game. He never questioned it, though.
A former Florida star, a first-round draft pick and a three-year starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Nelson played as much as anyone in the team's preseason opener last week. He was in early and late, playing alongside undrafted rookies and little-known veterans.
Nelson figured coaches were sending him a message. Actually, they were trying to bolster his confidence - which has taken a big hit after two sub-par seasons.
"What he's doing right now gives him a chance," coach Jack Del Rio said.
Nelson, the 21st selection in the 2007 draft, is trying to find his way after too many missed tackles and too many blown assignments. The Jaguars aren't ready to give up on him, either. Not even close.
Del Rio believes Nelson still has a chance to become a defensive playmaker and provide the kind of presence that made him a first-team All-American and national champion with the Gators. His next opportunity comes Saturday night against Miami.
"He's had some tough games, and when that happens, it can crush your confidence," Del Rio said. "We're trying to build him back up right now."
That certainly didn't seem to be the case in Philadelphia. Nelson played nearly every snap against the Eagles, getting looks with the starters and the long shots.
Nelson thought the worst.
"It's crystal clear. I played the whole game," he said. "I don't know if it's a message or what. I'm not going to sit there and argue with anybody. I'm just going to play football. Wherever I fall on the depth chart, I'll just fall into it.
"In their eyes, I'm not starting anymore. You've just got to accept that."
True, Nelson is no longer running with the first-team defense. He's behind Gerald Alexander, Anthony Smith and maybe even Sean Considine on the depth chart.
How did Nelson fall so far so fast?
He had 82 tackles, 12 pass breakups, five interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack as a rookie. He has just nine breakups and two picks since, and his tackles also have dropped.
Some blame Nelson's struggles on having three defensive coordinators - Mike Smith, Gregg Williams and Mel Tucker - in four seasons.
Others point to Nelson shuffling positions. He started out as a roaming safety, then was asked to stay home and read opposing quarterbacks. He also spent time playing cornerback and working only in nickel situations.
Del Rio has a different take. He says what Nelson did so well as a rookie - reading quarterbacks and then reacting to the football - simply doesn't work anymore because teams know they can take advantage of him with pump-fakes and look-offs.
"Everybody has what-ifs," Nelson said. "I can't sit here and say, 'What if they didn't do this or what if they didn't do that.' They asked me to do some things. I did it with no questions asked and went out there and did it to the best of my abilities. Learned corner within a week, learned nickel. Whenever my number's called, I just go play football."
It hasn't always been pretty, though.
The same guy who made bone-bruising hits, touchdown-saving tackles and game-changing interceptions for the Gators struggled all over the field for the Jaguars. He missed tackles near the line of scrimmage, allowed receivers to blow by him deep, and more often than not, left coaches and teammates scratching their heads.
Nelson never sulked, though.
He could have pouted, pointed fingers or pleaded for more stability. Instead, he took the blame.
"He owns up to everything," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "If he's out there, he's going to make plays."
That was evident in the preseason opener.
On three consecutive plays in the first quarter, Nelson made two open-field tackles and tipped away a pass in the end zone. Later in the game, though, he whiffed trying to tackle Michael Vick on a 10-yard touchdown run and was out of position on two passing plays.
"Everybody's got their opinion," Nelson said. "You've got to make the plays you can make, and if you don't make one, you've got to move on from it. You can't hold onto the last play. You've got to move on. You're not going to do everything right.
"You can't let the pressure bust the pipe."