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USF's Deatrick Nichols flourishing in new position

USF's Deatrick Nichols had a mostly solid nickel debut last weekend at San Jose State, registering six tackles and a pass breakup in USF's 42-22 triumph. (Octavio Jones, Times)
USF's Deatrick Nichols had a mostly solid nickel debut last weekend at San Jose State, registering six tackles and a pass breakup in USF's 42-22 triumph. (Octavio Jones, Times)
Published Aug. 31, 2017

TAMPA — A handful of USF senior Deatrick Nichols' most devastating hits are preserved in YouTube's annals.

Hundreds have watched him flatten Navy's Demond Brown in the backfield on a third-down option play during a 2015 game, but Nichols is partial to one he administered a week earlier. He and the Bulls were closing out a home romp of SMU when tailback Darius Durall nearly had his sternum rearranged after catching a pass in the flat.

"He's one of those sneaky tacklers," Bulls senior tailback (and fellow Miami native) Darius Tice said. "If you're running … he'll just come and sting you."

That propensity for fleetness and ferocity explains why Nichols — a two-time All-American Athletic Conference cornerback — appears to be flourishing at a new spot this season.

Nichols back has a nifty ring to it.

"Because of the spread offense, that (nickel) guy has to be one of your better players," first-year Bulls defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. "And we always considered him, even when he was at corner, one of our better players."

To suggest Nichols — a dread-locked alumnus of prep juggernaut Miami Central — has embraced his new role is understating it. Dude has bear-hugged it.

When asked if he had to be sold on the position switch, Nichols said he convinced the coaches to do it.

"It's closer to the ball, closer to the action," said Nichols, whose name was on the preseason watch list for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards. "I can go sideline to sideline quicker. I feel comfortable there."

Nichols (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) had a mostly solid nickel debut last weekend at San Jose State, registering six tackles and a pass breakup in USF's 42-22 triumph. Some early coverage breakdowns were overshadowed by stern support against the run as the Spartans averaged less than 3 yards per carry.

Therein lay the biggest reason coaches slid him inside, where Nichols now covers mostly slot guys. USF languished against the run last season, allowing nearly 200 yards a game. Why not move one of their steadiest tacklers and best blitzers closer to the trenches?

"He did okay," Jean-Mary said.

"We put a lot of pressure on that position because you have to be able to support the run, you have to be able obviously to play zone and man coverage, and you have to be able to blitz. So that's one of the premier positions on our defense. With his first shot off the bat, I think he did a great job."

The switch also enables coaches to ease the talent logjam at cornerback.

Nichols' move inside allowed Plant High alumnus Mazzi Wilkins — who had a dazzling preseason by many accounts — to make his first career start at cornerback last weekend opposite former Hillsborough standout Mike Hampton.

Wilkins was among three Bulls with an interception against the Spartans. At this point, USF appears no worse than three players deep at each corner spot.

"(The position change) put better guys on the field as well, more guys, so I'm not just being like an I-only-play-corner type of guy," Nichols said. "I can move around and make other guys play as well, so that's a good thing for me and my team."

And with a bigger presence in run stoppage, more YouTube immortality could loom.

"I take pride in my tackling," said Nichols, who recorded 111 tackles (10.5 for loss) over the past two years. "I love tackling."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.