College News & Analysis

College Football: Nathaniel “Tank” Dell is ready to put his name on the map after leading the AAC in almost every receiving category as a sophomore

PFF’s social media accounts have an important role in the NFL media landscape: They offer the latest football news, share unique stats and data and, of course, spawn illuminating feedback such as “three fire emojis” and “Did you even read the article?”

For Houston Cougars wide receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, the accounts have been used as extra motivation.

“It's all love with me,” Dell said with a laugh during an exclusive interview with PFF. “I wasn't mad at it, it was just motivation to me. Whatever I did last year, I have to up it a little bit more, like I didn't do enough. Obviously I didn’t do enough last year. So, you know, it was all jokes and fun to me. But they motivated me for sure.”

It’s hard to think recording 1,329 receiving yards, 90 receptions and 12 touchdowns in 2021 wasn’t enough. From being ghosted on the recruiting trail to now ghosting defenders in coverage, throw on the tape and it’s easy to be a fan of the 5-foot-10, 155-pound receiver named “Tank” — who led the AAC in nearly every receiving category. 

Dell's football journey began in Daytona Beach, Fla., a place he’d tell you prepared him for the best the game had to offer.

“I actually try to tell them down here Florida football is way better than Texas football,” Dell said.

As you would expect for a player who is 155 pounds in a college football program, Dell wasn’t heavily recruited as a high schooler, likely due to his size. But during his senior season of high school ball he did make it to some recruiting camps and stood out. He remembers going to one 7-on-7 camp specifically at FIU and was extended a full scholarship offer a few days later going into his senior season.

“That was my first offer,” Dell said. “I cried when I got that offer. I was crying about that because, you know, I went through a lot.”

As his final season of high school football went on, the communication between him and FIU stopped — and not because of a lack of effort on his part. Eventually he took the hint that they had dropped the offer. This left a young Dell in a tough spot: wanting to continue playing football but without a school to attend. He and fellow high school teammate Brian Jenkins ended up going to Alabama A&M, an HBCU program where his friend’s father was the running backs coach.

But Dell told himself that wouldn’t be for long.

“When I first got there, I told myself I'm gonna go JUCO after this semester,” Dell said. “I know I can go bigger.”

Despite getting hurt and not being able to play much at Alabama A&M, Dell did indeed opt to go the JUCO route after that 2018 season. He landed at Independence Community College — the one known for the Netflix show “Last Chance U.” His former high school quarterback was there, and Dell felt like a reunion could play in his favor.

But Dell still had dreams of playing college football in his home state of Florida. So when USF opened up a summer camp for JUCO players, he was sure to be there. Dell still had an upcoming season at ICC, but USF liked what they saw and stayed in contact with Dell.

His first game couldn’t have gone better. Dell had six catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns in ICC’s season opener, and the calls and texts from USF continued. Dell knew he wanted to be back in Florida, but he didn’t want to commit to USF too early given how well he played to open the season. But as the year went on and USF was the strongest offer he had, he decided that was the place for him. So he told them he wanted to commit, but he wanted to do so on his birthday later in the season to make it special.

Two weeks before his birthday, a case of deja vu: USF wasn’t answering him, just like what happened with FIU. The trail had gone cold.

“God puts you in certain positions for a reason,” Dell said. “Me being at ICC, that experience right there toughened me up. And it was a great spot for me to excel to where I wanted to be [as a player]. It was a great fit for me. That was like one of the best moves I ever made so far in my life, man.”

After that season at ICC, Dell had the chance to go play for Dana Holgorsen in Houston. A chance he jumped at.

“I love ‘Coach Home' to death,” Dell said. “It's so fun playing with him due to the fact that it's like he believes in his guys. He listens. He's not one of those coaches where you come here and he wants to run the show every time. You can go up to him and tell him what's open and what you think in your mind; you can go to him and tell him ‘This is what I see on the field.’”

Whatever Dell has been seeing in Holgorsen’s offense has been working. In his first season, he recorded 428 yards on 29 catches with three touchdowns in 2020. But that was in just eight games during a shortened season. The year that followed put him on the map.

Stat (2021) Figure AAC Rank
PFF Grade 89.9 1st
Receptions 90 1st
Rec. Yards 1,329 1st
Rec. TDs 12 1st
First Downs 64 1st

Dell's route running is the calling card of his game. His footwork is fast, and he consistently separates early and often from his assignments in the slot or on the outside. Where his size might seem like a negative to some, he turns his speed and his shiftiness into an advantage. That’s why his goals for the upcoming season are sky-high.

“I set for myself 1,800 yards and 15 total touchdowns,” Dell said. “I plan to be a punt returner this year. So I want to be one of the top punt returners in college football. I also want to be a team captain, because I wasn't a team captain last year. But the most important goal is a conference championship.”

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