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COVID-induced position shift has turned Cole Turner into Carson Strong's 'safety blanket'

Cole Turner
Cole Turner has been one of the nation's most productive tight ends the last two seasons. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

You can partially credit the pandemic for helping Cole Turner become one of the nation's top tight ends.

The Wolf Pack senior played sparingly his first two seasons at Nevada, catching six passes over 25 games as a sparsely used but clearly talented wideout. After the pandemic struck in March 2020, Turner started to put some weight onto his 6-foot-6 frame, which led the team's strength coach, Jordon Simmons, to envision a different future for Turner.

"It's pretty funny, actually, because that was during COVID," Turner said of his position switch. "I was gaining weight. I was already a pretty big guy, same height. But I just kept gaining weight and I started getting past like 230 (pounds) and Coach Simmons called me one day and he's, like, 'What do you think about playing tight end?' I was, like, 'I'll do anything to get on the field more. I was all for it.' Coach Norvell thankfully gave me an opportunity, and it's really worked out for everyone."

Turner had a breakout 2020 season, catching 49 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns, each top-five ranks nationally at his position. Through six games this year, Turner has 34 receptions for 403 yards and four touchdowns. Entering Nevada's game against Fresno State, Turner has established himself as one of the Mountain West's most dangerous weapons.

"They have one of the best athletic hybrid tight ends you're going to see on a football field in No. 19," Fresno State defensive coordinator William Inge said.

Turner has turned into Carson Strong's go-to guy on key downs, specifically on third down and around the goal line. Turner's success on fade and back-shoulder throws in the end zone has been lethal for the opposition. Strong and Turner have also been roommates the last four seasons, strengthening their bond.

"I think the first thing is that we've played together for a long time now," said Turner, who is in his fourth season in the program with Strong. "We get along really well. We have a similar mindset on the field. We see a lot of the same things. I always tell him I want to be a safety blanket. And he always tells me on critical downs he's coming to me. So we've got a good connection, and I like the ball in my hands in pressure situations. And he trusts me."

Turner's 12-catch, 175-yard performance in last week's win over Hawaii was a historic one. It was the most receptions and the most receiving yards in a game for a Nevada tight end. It marked Turner's first double-digit catch game and his second over the 100-yard mark. The Senior Bowl, which culls the nation's top NFL draft prospects who are seniors, named Turner their national offensive player of the week. There's a good chance Turner is playing on Sundays next season.

"Everybody wants to end up playing in the Senior Bowl, so that's definitely a big goal of mine to be able to hopefully make it into the game," Turner said. "I'm glad they were able to recognize me and kind of see what we're all about here at Nevada. It wasn't just me. It was the guys helping me out, other guys running routes, getting opening and Carson feeding me the ball."

Turner also had a blocked punt against the Rainbow Warriors, the Wolf Pack being one of the few teams in the nation willing to put its star starters on the special teams unit. Head coach Jay Norvell said the team's success in close games — Nevada is 10-2 in its last 12 games decided by a touchdown or less — is partially a result of special teams. Norvell also knows players who want to reach the NFL must be able to offer something on special teams, so Turner has willingly accepted his role on those units, which are coached by coordinator Thomas Sheffield.

"Coach Sheffield preaches the 'Ride or Die' culture all the time, and I'm all for it," Turner said. "I'll do whatever for this team. He drew up a great block for us this week. I'm happy that everyone else rushed hard as well because that allowed me to come free. It's definitely one of most proud moments of my career so far because you don't get that opportunity too often. I'm just glad I didn't miss the ball."

Turner, whose given first name is actually Nicholas ("Sometimes even my parents forget because I've been called Cole my whole life."), also has become known for his long curly hair the last couple of seasons. The Clackamas, Ore., native said that's also a result of COVID-19. He started growing his hair when the pandemic began and said he wasn't going to cut it until it was over.

"I didn't know if it would look good or bad, and then everyone just liked it from last season when it wasn't even half this length," Turner said of his shoulder-length locks (he has a special conditioner for it). "I was, like, 'I might as well keep going,' and everyone seems to enjoy it. So I like it, too, and it's not too much to take care of, so I don't mind keeping it for now."

Turner said it's been nice to break into the Wolf Pack's receiving records books, but that's not his ultimate goal. He wants to leave Nevada with a conference championship, and the Wolf Pack can take a big step in that direction Saturday at Fresno State, a team that also is in the hunt for the West Division title. Like Nevada, the Bulldogs are stocked with star skill-position players on offense.

"We're really excited," Turner said. "I feel like they're a team similar to us. Great QB, great receivers, defense that's athletic and makes a lot of plays. So it's going to be a fun game for sure. It's always fun when two of the top teams in the conference go against each other. I wish we were playing here at Mackay so everybody could see it, but we're going to handle business down there."

You can watch Cole Turner's full NSN Daily interview below.

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