After years of being the biggest stars on campus, of compiling highlight-reel plays and leading the Griz to victory, stepping into NFL mini camp is awfully humbling.

"Feels like being a redshirt (freshman) again," joked former Montana cornerback J.R. Nelson.

Nelson and recent Griz teammate Caleb Kidder have gone from the top of the food chain back down to the bottom of the ladder this spring while attempting to parlay their time as Grizzlies into careers in professional football. Though neither was drafted in April, the Minnesota Vikings liked what they saw in Kidder and signed him as a free agent moments after the draft. The same was true of the Kansas City Chiefs and Nelson.

With the formalities out of the way, Montana's two hopefuls under NFL contracts from the class of 2017 got to work in May. First came rookie mini camps before the heat turned up during a series of organized team activity (OTAs) practices in June.

That's were it really dawned on Kidder. He's not in college anymore.

"There's no wasted time in our days," said Kidder, a defensive lineman out of Helena Capital, describing his daily schedule in Vikings camp down to 15-minute increments. "In the NFL you have a 6-week (summer) schedule and it doesn't change. ... You definitely get that work feeling, that you're in a professional environment right away."

The jersey colors change, the facilities get a massive upgrade but the game on the field is still football. Showing the coaches they belong at the highest level is the ultimate goal.

To do that takes confidence, Nelson said, even if the first few days it's partially imitated. Much like back in college, the veteran players (or seniors) didn't pay much attention to the newbies (freshmen). Summer OTAs are a proving ground for rookies.

"You get to the OTAs and the vets come; that was a change. Everybody was good, even the guys who don't look good or are small. You gotta be on your game," Nelson said. 

"... But as soon as you start making some plays, showing what you can do on the field, there's a respect factor. The guys start talking to you and including you."

***

For Nelson, a lanky 6-foot-2 defensive back from California, he started to feel like he belonged a few days into OTAs in early June. Breaking up a pass from an NFL quarterback can do wonders in the confidence department. An interception -- Nelson picked off Chiefs first-round draft pick Patrick Mahomes during one drill -- will do even more.

So much of what makes for a successful transition to the NFL involves the mental side of the game though. While at Montana -- where Nelson was honorable mention all-Big Sky Conference in 2015 before missing the first half of his senior season -- the corner was only responsible for knowing and understanding his own position's duties. His new coaches demand he can describe the responsibilities of all 11 defenders on any given play.

Understanding the defense as a whole allows each player to better grasp their place within it, Nelson said, and how best to guard the receivers in his area.

"I feel like a defensive coordinator out there," Nelson quipped. "Seriously, I'm going to leave that place knowing so much more about football than I did."

Kidder has had some learning of his own to do. A first-team all-conference defensive tackle before moving to end as a UM senior, scouts had him running linebacker drills at Montana's pro day in March. While the Vikings still like him at defensive end, a D-end in the NFL is asked to do a bit more.

"With the defensive end spot, we do drop back in coverage in some situations," said the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Kidder, who added he also slides inside to D-tackle on some passing plays. "That whole dropping back to cover thing during pro day actually helped me out a little bit."

***

Both Kidder and Nelson spent the past week catching up with friends and family while their stringent NFL schedules finally allowed for some down time. With OTAs complete, it's summer break until training camp starts in late July.

Kidder was back in Missoula dropping in on old coaches and teammates, though you'll be more likely to find him on one of Montana's lakes the rest of his month off. Nelson was also taking in the lake views, posted up at Lake Chelan in Washington before heading back to the Seattle area where his wife's family lives.

It's time to relax before the final push comes in a month's time. NFL teams will be whittling their 90-man offseason rosters down to 53 by the time the season starts in September, and there's still a lot to prove in order to nab one of those coveted spots.

Even if the results have been generally positive so far.

"Hearing (Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson's) feedback, what he thinks about me, that was an awesome feeling," Kidder said of conversations with Patterson, a former Griz player and graduate assistant in the early 1980s. "He said, 'You have NFL strength, you got NFL size.' I've just got to continue to work on my pass-rushing skills."

"I hear I've got great feet, great technique, and that's something I pride myself on," Nelson added. "... I want to show I can be a lockdown-type corner."

And if either Griz can meet those goals, it won't take long for him to shed that redshirt-freshman feeling.

AJ Mazzolini can be reached by email at ajmazzolini@missoulian.com or on Twitter @ajmazzolini.

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