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Receiver Tre Nixon — Ernie Adams’s last draft choice for Patriots — could be a real sleeper pick

Tre Nixon starred at Central Florida after two years at Ole Miss.
Tre Nixon starred at Central Florida after two years at Ole Miss.Willie J. Allen Jr./Associated Press

All Tre Nixon wanted on Day 3 of the NFL Draft was the call.

Joined by a small group of close friends and family at his mother’s home, Nixon, a redshirt senior wide receiver out of Central Florida, entered the afternoon with hopes that he would hear his phone ring and his name announced.

Nixon’s camp thought that moment could come as early as the fourth round. But the fourth round came and went. As did the fifth and sixth rounds.

Then, at the beginning of the seventh round, Nixon’s phone started ringing. His friends and family quieted down and looked at one another with excitement. But it wasn’t the call Nixon wanted. Instead, it was the first of multiple teams inquiring about signing the 6-foot-2-inch wide receiver as an undrafted free agent.

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Each time the phone would ring, the suspense would build. Was this call going to be the one? The answer kept being no.

“You could see that he was stressing out that he wasn’t going to get picked,” said Kevin Mays, who coached Nixon at Viera High School in Florida.

Thirteen picks into the seventh round, the phone rang again.

“This one was different,” recalled Evan Cruz, one of Nixon’s high school teammates and friends. “He answered the call. He was quiet, and then, right away, he pointed at the [television] screen.”

On the clock were the Patriots with the 242nd overall pick. And on the other end of the line was Ernie Adams, longtime confidant of coach Bill Belichick, who hand-selected Nixon and was about to deliver the news Nixon had been hoping for all day.

“It was like a house had been lifted off him,” Mays said. “You saw his whole face change. I think he knew that phone call was going to be different.”

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After the selection was announced, tears were shed and hugs were shared. Soon, neighbors waved through the window and knocked on the door to offer congratulations. The local Publix even announced over its public address system that Nixon had been drafted.

“It was probably one of the biggest, most emotional times of my life that I will always remember for the rest of my life,” Nixon said later that evening. “It’s a moment I’ll tell my grandkids about and I’ll never forget it. I’m very blessed.”

Refining his ability

As a freshman at Viera High School, Nixon was already one of the fastest kids on the football team. Mays wanted to utilize him as a deep threat on the varsity squad, but decided to first give Nixon some reps at the junior varsity level.

“It wasn’t even fair, but you could just tell that he needed confidence,” Mays said. “He finished the year on varsity and never looked back. He was a big-time player for us.”

Nixon was clearly a cut above the competition in in high school.
Nixon was clearly a cut above the competition in in high school.Carl Kotala

Even on varsity, nobody could match Nixon stride for stride. Just how fast was he? As a sprinter on Viera’s track and field team, Nixon ran the 100-meter dash in 10.77 seconds and the 200-meter in 22.35 seconds.

Nixon’s speed alone was enough to take the top off defenses.

Mays remembers a specific play that slightly frustrated him because he felt as though Nixon didn’t recognize the power of his speed. The defensive back was playing off coverage, but Nixon chose to work a move off the line of scrimmage — something Mays argues was unnecessary because the defender wasn’t pressing.

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When the play resulted in an incompletion, Nixon came to the sideline, and with the defensive back standing right beside him and listening, Mays said, “Tre, we’re going to run the same play. I just want you to run deep. Don’t do anything. Just use your speed and run by him.”

Sure enough, Nixon followed the instructions, blew by his defender — who knew what was coming — and caught a touchdown pass.

Both Nixon and his coaches knew, however, that simply outrunning opponents wasn’t going to be a sustainable strategy at the college level or beyond. To convert his speed into effective route-running, Nixon spent hours on footwork drills, refining his ability to cut and learning how to leverage his hips and feet.

Nixon was the type of player to stay late after practice to run through the route tree and catch passes from the quarterbacks. According to Mays, he would often catch 50-100 balls per day at different distances. And if he dropped three or four during practice, he would add another 40 to reassure his hands.

“He just worked at his hands,” said Derek Smith, who coached against Nixon in practice as Viera’s defensive coordinator. “He kept making them softer. He kept making it so when you heard him catch a ball, it didn’t sound like it was hitting anything.”

When he wasn’t at practice, Nixon could be found at a nearby park with his older brother Devin, an agility ladder, and a ball machine, just logging rep after rep after rep.

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“Seven days a week, they were at that park,” Cruz said. “It didn’t matter if they were there for six hours or 20 minutes, they were going to go to that park and they were going to put that work in.”

By his junior year, Nixon had developed into a multiple-threat receiver. He finished with 36 catches for 905 yards and 12 touchdowns. The next season, as a senior, he went on to set school records with 79 receptions for 1,243 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Viera High School coach Kevin Mays (left) was impressed with Nixon's work ethic.
Viera High School coach Kevin Mays (left) was impressed with Nixon's work ethic.Ernie Cruz

Not only could Nixon burn his defenders on a go route, but he could also run the ball on a jet sweep, hit a stop route, or execute shorter routes across the middle and generate yards after the catch. His speed already made him a tough cover, but his versatility took the challenge up a notch.

“You may think that he’s going on a go route, but he can stop on a dime whenever he wants as well,” said Cruz, who played cornerback at Viera. “He was always getting me with those. Whenever you play him, you don’t want to get beat deep because you know how fast he is, but he can also beat you underneath as well.”

Wowing the coaches

It didn’t take long for college coaches to catch wind of Nixon’s speed and production.

When he was a sophomore in high school, Nixon attended a Nike SPARQ Combine, which gives athletes an opportunity to have their athleticism scored via various tests. According to Cruz, Nixon ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds, a time that would have tied for third-fastest at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine.

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“A 4.38 laser, that’s ridiculous for a sophomore in high school,” Cruz said.

The buzz grew about a year and a half later, the summer before his senior year of high school, when Nixon participated in a satellite camp at Stetson University. With several college coaches in attendance, including Penn State’s James Franklin, Nixon ran the 40-yard dash.

According to Smith, Nixon posted a 4.36.

“The coach looks at the clock, and you can tell he’s looking at the clock with an ‘All right, did this really just happen?’ kind of face,” recalled Smith.

Penn State’s offensive coordinator at the time, John Donovan, asked Nixon to run the 40 again, this time calling Franklin over to watch, too. Nixon, once again, finished with a sub-4.4 time.

“Both their expressions on their faces were just awe,” Smith said. “Literally at the end of that camp, Coach Franklin verbally offered Tre right there at that satellite camp.”

Nixon collected offers from more than two dozen schools before committing to Ole Miss, where he would spend two seasons behind standout receivers A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf. After seeing limited action — he redshirted his freshman year and caught one pass in 10 games the following year — Nixon transferred to Central Florida, where he started every game both his redshirt-sophomore and junior years.

Nixon's next stop on his football journey is Foxborough.
Nixon's next stop on his football journey is Foxborough.Carl Kotala

UCF wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt lauded Nixon for his speed, of course, as well as his ability to play inside and out and his capacity to handle a lot of information. As a redshirt junior, Nixon registered 49 receptions for 830 yards and 7 touchdowns. Six of those scores were 20-plus yards.

“Tre is really athletic,” Wyatt said. “He’s legitimately fast.”

For Wyatt, Nixon’s most memorable grab came against Stanford that year.

“He was running toward the goalpost coming from the right sideline,” Wyatt recalled. “The ball was thrown moving away from the direction he was running, over his right shoulder, and he was able to adjust and catch the ball just outside of his right shoulder and make the adjustment.

“I really thought that was probably his best play. And I thought that was probably his best game. That’s when I knew he had an NFL future.”

There was some discussion that Nixon may declare for the draft after his redshirt junior season, but he ultimately decided to return for his last year to clean up parts of his game and put on some additional weight.

When Nixon arrived at UCF in 2018, he was approximately 170 pounds and, in Wyatt’s words, “still kind of thin.” At his Pro Day this past April, Nixon weighed in at 187 pounds, and logged 18 reps on the bench press. The additional muscle and improved strength, Wyatt says, has allowed Nixon to become a more physical player.

Wyatt had a feeling that big things would be in store for Nixon last year, but an injury ultimately left them both thinking, “What if?”

Against Georgia Tech in UCF’s season opener, Nixon dislocated his collarbone, which sidelined him for the majority of his final season. At the time of the injury, late in the second quarter, Nixon had already logged 94 yards and two touchdowns in the game.

“He was on his way to an All-American-type season,” said Wyatt. “In 2020, he was really, really on his way to having a major, major breakout year. I thought he was on his way to a 1,200- to 1,500-yard season.”

Although Nixon ended up returning from injury for UCF’s final three games, logging 15 catches for 166 yards, Wyatt says there’s no denying the time sidelined impacted his draft stock.

“The injury probably allowed him to be available in the seventh round,” he said.

A note of distinction

Now on the Patriots, Nixon joins a receiving corps with Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, and Gunner Olszewski.

How might he be used?

“I think he’s really, really versatile,” said Wyatt. “I think he can play in the slot, but Tre’s got vertical speed. I think the area where he’s underrated is he’s got very quick feet at the line of scrimmage. He’s really, really advanced as far as getting off press coverage. He can win a lot of the one-on-one matchups outside. He gets to his top speed really quickly. In 10-15 yards, in 10 yards, he is really, really just about at top speed.”

No matter what happens next, Nixon will be remembered for what happened on draft night.

With Adams retiring this season after more than two decades with the Patriots, Belichick gave his longtime adviser complete control over New England’s last draft pick. Adams walked up to the whiteboard, grabbed the magnet representing Nixon, and made the call.

After speaking to Nixon, Adams passed the phone to Belichick, who made sure the incoming rookie was aware of the special honor.

“Great to have you with us,” Belichick told Nixon on the phone. “You just talked to Coach Adams. He personally selected you. He made this pick.”


Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.