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Undrafted: Spruce Bringing Underdog Mentality to NFL

Posted Jun 17, 2016

Rookie wide receiver Nelson Spruce is the Pac 12's all-time leader in receptions, but still went undrafted. That's given him a chip on his shoulder as he returns to his hometown to try to make the Rams' 53-man roster.

“I’m not much of a speech guy. What would you want to hear if you were a high school kid?”

Undrafted rookie wide receiver Nelson Spruce is walking down the stairs of the stands at Westlake High School in Agoura Hills, Calif., about to give an impromptu address to the current football players assembled for an evening spring practice. It’s late May, and the Pac 12’s all-time leader in receptions hasn’t even reached a month since singing with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent. And yet, here he is at his old stomping grounds, consulting a team reporter and video producer about the message he should give to this next generation.

Except the consultation wasn't necessary. At all. Spruce speaks from the heart about his time at Westlake — a place where he dominated his high school competition.

“I was fortunate enough to go on and play in the Pac 12,” he tells the team. “I got to play in stadiums like the Rose Bowl, the Coliseum in front of 70,000. But some of my best memories are right here on this field.

“Those four years that I had here — I would do anything to come back and play in a couple more games,” Spruce continues. “There’s something about those Friday nights… Those nights — they’re something I really wish I could come back and re-live one more time.”

Of course, at 23 years old, Spruce won’t be under the Friday night lights any longer. Instead, he’s just beginning another chapter in his football journey — one where a 6-foot-1, 205-pound wide receiver hopes to make the 53-man roster of the team that just moved back to his hometown.

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There’s been an underdog element to many aspects of Spruce’s on-field career, but he was one of the primary cogs in the spinning wheel that was Westlake’s offense. A captain for his junior and senior seasons, Spruce was an offensive force in both years. As a junior, Spruce caught 65 passes for 1,325 yards and 18 touchdowns — including seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown in Westlake’s 14-10 CIF Championship Game victory to finish off a perfect 14-0 season.

He followed that up with 73 receptions for 1,292 yards and 18 touchdowns his senior year, numbers made more impressive given Spruce played in the second half of just four of 14 games.

And yet, when the time came for recruiting, Spruce didn’t get the attention he would’ve preferred from schools right down the road.

“I was just a three-star. I wasn’t really highly touted or anything,” Spruce says. “Colorado was really my only Pac 12 offer. So I had a few local schools like San Diego State, San Jose — schools like that. But I always wanted to play at the highest level. So once I got that offer from Colorado, I committed pretty quickly. And I think it really turned out to be a good choice for me.”

Spruce undoubtedly was able to thrive in The Centennial State. After redshirting in 2011, Spruce became a mainstay in the offense, particularly in his junior and senior years. In 2014, he registered 106 receptions for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns. Then in 2015 he caught 89 more passes en route to shattering the Pac 12 all-time receptions record. He finished his career with 294. Former Jaguars wide receiver Mike Thomas held the previous record from his time at Arizona: 259.

“That conference has had a lot of big names go through it,” Spruce says. “So being able to achieve that really meant a lot to me.”

And he never forgot about the perceived slight by those hometown programs.

“Only being recruited by one Pac 12 school, whenever I’d play schools — especially the local ones like UCLA, USC, that are right down the street from here — it kind of did add a little extra motivation to prove them wrong,” Spruce says.

In many ways, the wideout’s journey from college to the NFL reflects his recruiting experience. Despite placing his name all over the record books, there was still disappointment, as no team called Spruce’s name in the draft.

“Obviously, you dream about getting the call on draft day your entire life,” he says. “So it was a day that I was super anxious for, and as the later rounds start coming, it did get a little bit stressful and I ended up going undrafted.

“I feel like I went kind of unnoticed through the draft, because if you’re looking at me on paper, there’s nothing that really pops out to you — my size, my speed,” he adds. “But I know — I’m confident in my abilities and when I’m on the field. I think my game speaks for itself. So I think throughout the draft process, a lot of guys get caught up in the ‘wow’ factor with some of these athletes. But at the end of the day, I feel like I can do things on the field that’s going to make me productive in the NFL.”

Fortunately, Los Angeles had serious interest in Spruce, which had been reflected throughout the offseason. The Colorado product said his relationship with wide receivers coach Mike Groh was one of the determining factors in signing with the Rams.

“They were the only team that had a formal meeting with me at the Combine, the only team I did a workout for,” Spruce said. “So when it came down to it, and I was able to pick between a few teams after the draft, I already had a good relationship with the coaching staff. I was kind of familiar with the playbook. So those were the things that led me to staying here with the Rams.”

The fact that this pro team is now in his own backyard is an added bonus.

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The Rams relocated from Los Angeles when Spruce was only two years old, meaning he grew up without the professional football team that had long called this city home. Signing with that same team in the same year it returns to Southern California has been an unexpected and pleasant surprise — particularly for his family.

“It’s awesome having him back here because when he graduated high school, literally the next day he was on an airplane and out to Colorado,” Nelson’s mother, Christina, says. “And you know how the football season is — it goes pretty much year ‘round. So he’s home for three weeks at summer time, and pretty much gone for the rest of the year. So it’s really nice to have him here and walk in the house on a Friday afternoon and he’s here.”

“My mom and dad are my backbone for me. Since high school, they haven’t missed a game,” Nelson says. “My dad never missed one of my college games — home or away. So they’ve both just played a huge role in this process for me. They’ve been with me every step of the way. And I know no matter what ends up happening, they’ll be there for me.”

After Spruce finished his playing career at Colorado, he had most of his belongings shipped back to his parents’ home. As his mother put it, they kept everything in boxes so they could easily move it to one of the 31 NFL cities following the draft. At least for now, those boxes can remain right where they are.

“The crazy part for me too, I’m thinking going into the whole draft process that I’m going to be moving to some city anywhere in the country,” Spruce says. “But the reality of it is, I can be living — will probably be moving back into this house. The practice facility is about 15 minutes away.”

“I mean it’s almost surreal,” Spruce adds later. “You think once you’re on a team, you’re going to be packing up and moving to a new city. But for me, I get to move back home and move back in with my parents. It’s almost like I’m back in high school again.”

Standing beside the Westlake field where he made so much of an impact, Spruce easily becomes nostalgic. The wideout recalls a play where he was able to jump over a defender and rip the ball out of his hands to come down with a reception. He says being on that field, some of his most meaningful memories feel as if they just occurred.

But it has been years since Spruce last played at the high school level, time spent gaining valuable football experience in one of college football’s premier conferences. It’s what Spruce should be able to draw upon as he goes about attempting to accomplish his next goal — making the Rams’ 53-man roster.

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Because Spruce has no guarantees as an undrafted rookie, he recognizes he must be outstanding in order to secure a spot on the team.

“At the end of the day, I’m in my playbook as much as I can to learn all the details of this offense,” he says. “And I know I’m going to have to play a role on special teams, which is something I didn’t really get a chance to do in college, but it’s something I’m looking forward to doing.”

Observing him in practice, it’s easy to notice that Spruce has good hands. He seems to reel in every catchable pass thrown his way. Really, it’s what you would expect from someone who caught 294 passes at Colorado.

Spruce also had some built-in chemistry with one of the Rams’ quarterbacks. No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff trained with Spruce prior to the draft, which established a sense of trust between signal-caller and receiver.

“Whenever I see him out there … I try to put it on him,” Goff said in a recent press conference. “He’s done a really good job so far.”

A rapport with Goff may or may not give Spruce an edge, but it won’t be a determining factor. And Spruce knows OTAs are only the beginning for where he must impress the Rams’ brass.

“I mean, shoot, I’m living my dream right now,” Spruce says. “But at the same time, it’s kind of a starting point for me. I know there’s a lot of work ahead for me. So I’m just kind of looking forward to the challenge of being in this new environment, adjusting to the pro game. And, hopefully, being able to make this team and to make a difference.”

Whether or not he winds up on the opening day roster will not be determined for months. But no matter the outcome, Spruce will not lose the underdog mentality that comes from the way he’s been doubted throughout his football career.

“The word ‘undrafted,’ to me, is kind of just a chip that I can hold on my shoulder for as long as I play,” he says. “I was overlooked by every team in every round of the draft. So going forward for me, it’s just about being confident in my ability that I can play at this level. And just doing whatever I can to be successful.

“I was disappointed,” Spruce adds, “but from the day after the draft on, all I can do is use that as motivation. I got my opportunity at the end of the day. I’m back at home with the Rams. I couldn’t really ask for anything else. At the end of the day, it’s just up to me to take advantage of this opportunity.”