HONOLULU -- When Omar Nelson arrived at the Naval Academy 3 1/2 years ago, he firmly believed he would be one of the new players who would help the Midshipmen reverse more than a decade of losing.
"I came out of the Navy Preparatory School as the leading running back," the Silver Spring native recalled yesterday before a practice for the Aloha Bowl meeting with California on Christmas Day.
"I thought with the reception I got, I'd make an immediate impact on the varsity. But I understand now that unless you're a Herschel Walker type, coaches don't want to place a lot of faith in freshmen."
It took three long, frustrating years for Nelson to blossom. But the 5-foot-9, 228-pound fullback finished with a flourish. He rushed for 857 yards and a 5.9 average this season to join option quarterback Chris McCoy (1,228 yards) as one of college football's most productive running duos.
Nelson set up the winning field goal against Air Force with a tackle-breaking, 51-yard run in the final two minutes.
"You want to be the guy who makes the big play," he said. "That was the biggest win I've been associated with in sports."
He also rushed for more than 100 yards in consecutive games against SMU, Boston College and Duke, becoming the first Navy back to accomplish that feat since All-American Napoleon McCallum in 1985.
"We always knew he had the ability," said coach Charlie Weatherbie. "He just needed to make a thorough commitment to perform at the highest level and believe in our system.
"Omar has been a big reason for our success this season. At the fullback position, he can carry the ball wide or inside, and he's been one of our senior leaders."
Most members of the Navy staff wondered if he would ever be worthy of such a positive assessment. The word "attitude" came up often.
"Basically, that's it," said offensive coordinator Paul Johnson. "His attitude changed this year. He approached his preseason conditioning as if he had something to prove to us and himself."
Nelson, who said he was overweight and perhaps under-motivated his sophomore and junior seasons, turned himself over to Navy strength coach Phil Emory last winter.
"Coach Emory really put me through the grinder," Nelson said, laughing. "I started out at 236, but by the time he had me through all those StairMaster, bicycle exercises and weightlifting every day, I was down to 218 when the season opened.
"I could see the difference right away in my speed and stamina," said Nelson, a former prep sprinter. "I was running harder. My explosion in the holes improved. It's the first season I've finished feeling strong."
It was the way he was remembered running for John F. Kennedy High in Silver Spring, where, as a senior fullback, he was named the Washington area's Player of the Year.
Nelson was not overwhelmed by scholarship offers, except for Navy and Division I-AA schools James Madison and Richmond. Maryland paid him a visit, but ended up showing only lukewarm interest.
But Nelson, son of a career Air Force man, had set his sights on Navy.
"I wanted to stay close to home," he said, "and attending the academy was also a challenge to do something demanding and also all the opportunities that are there after graduation."
Nelson did not have a difficult time adjusting to the strict academy regimen.
"My father was a disciplinarian," he said. "He told us how to follow rules and that no matter where you play or work, someone is always in charge."
As a plebe, he was assigned to the junior varsity and produced several outstanding games, but he was never promoted to the varsity by then-coach George Chaump.
He began his sophomore season as a starter, but ran mostly in place, managing to accumulate only 387 yards rushing.
"I got hurt in the third game against Bowling Green," he said. "I tried to come back too soon and ended up tearing some abdominal muscles."
As a junior, he started the first seven games before being supplanted by the less-gifted Tim Cannada.
"No excuses," he said. "I just wasn't making the plays. I just wasn't performing the way I am now."
But Nelson can now reflect on his football career with some satisfaction.
"It wouldn't have been the end of the world for me if I hadn't had a big season, but now I can look back and smile because I've finished on a high note."
Nelson's efforts have almost been overlooked amid all the fanfare over McCoy, but he accepts the situation with equanimity.
"Chris is our team leader, playing the dominant situation," he said. "Without him calling the shots, we wouldn't be in the Aloha Bowl. But my teammates respect what I do. That's what matters most."
Asked if he had any regrets about choosing the academy, Nelson said: "I know I made the right choice. Of the teams that recruited me, Navy is the only one still playing."
Navy (8-3) vs. California (6-5)
Site: Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii
Time: 3: 30 p.m. (EST) TV/Radio: Ch. 2/WITH (1230 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
The line: California by 1
Pub Date: 12/23/96