The Montana Grizzlies will be without JR Nelson, a senior cornerback and one of the team's defensive anchors, for the first half of the 2016 football season because of a failed drug test.
According to a source with close knowledge of the situation, Nelson tested positive for marijuana use in NCAA-mandated drug screenings during Montana's run in the FCS playoffs last season. A first positive test for a "street drug" carries a penalty of ineligibility for 50 percent of the sport's season -- upwards of six games in the Grizzlies' instance. One appeal has already been denied, although Nelson is pursuing another appeal.
"We're not able to comment about drug tests for student-athletes," UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam said.
Student-athletes competing in Division I and II sports are subject to year-round testing, according to the NCAA's drug testing program, and may be selected on a number of basis including sport, competitive ranking, past performance or even at random. Those mid-year tests are geared toward anabolic agents and performance-enhancing drugs only (unless an athlete has a previous positive test).
Tests administered for championship play look for the same things, but also include stimulants and street drugs, under which marijuana is classified. Athletes may be tested before, during or after NCAA championship events with no more than two hours notice.
The Griz reached the second round of the FCS playoffs last year, falling to North Dakota State 37-6 in Fargo on Dec. 5 after beating South Dakota State 24-17 the week prior in the first round.
Nelson played a major role in getting the Grizzlies that far. The 6-foot-2 corner from Hacienda Heights, California started all 13 games as a junior and made 49 total tackles, the third most among returning players. He co-led the team with two interceptions and played an instrumental part in UM's game-winning -- and season-saving -- fumble return for a touchdown to beat Idaho State in overtime.
Nelson has appeared in 38 games during his career with 14 starts and was projected as one of only three returning starters on the defensive side of the ball for 2016, along with tackle Caleb Kidder and safety Yamen Sanders.
Cornerback is among Montana's weakest positions in terms of depth, a fact the coaching staff addressed earlier this month by adding graduate transfer TJ Reynard from Wisconsin. UM had just four corners on campus during spring practices in March and April, drills in which Nelson participated in full.
Sophomore Markell Sanders was projected to start opposite Nelson in the defensive secondary in 2016 with juniors Ryan McKinley and Shane Moody adding depth. Sanders played 11 games and made 14 tackles as a redshirt-freshman in 2015 after transferring from Washington State, while McKinley appeared in 12 and notched seven. Moody had one tackle in special-teams duty while playing in only UM's late-season contest against Eastern Washington.