BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
It may seem just like yesterday that Isaiah Nichols was a 265-pound defensive terror at Springdale High, but it’s been five years, five different defensive line coaches, two head coaches and a lot of other changes.
Nichols, who is sporting the number 33 this season instead of 93, is now a 305-pound veteran at Arkansas where his coaches are expecting him to lead his group while having a breakout season.
Razorback head coach Sam Pittman is a big fan of Nichols, who had 21 tackles last season and has 64 in 37 games in his career.
“Nichols is valuable,” Pittman said last week. “Nichols is as valuable as anybody we have on our team. He’s a guy that is a leader on our team.
“In recruiting, he’s a senior and helped us in recruiting. The guy has got a lot of value, but more than anything he’s got value because he’s a good football player. Right now, there’s a significant difference in him and the next guys in.”
Nichols talked about how happy he is with preseason camp Thursday after the Razorbacks’ sixth workout of the season, which doubled as their first in pads and first after a day off.
“I think it has honestly been great,” Nichols said. “It is some of the best that we have looked since I have been here. We have done a lot of good things on offense and defense. We are playing really physical. If you take a look at the O-line and the D-Line after practice, we are beat up. We have been handling each other.
“We have been playing really good, smart, fundamentally sound football and that’s the brand of football we play. As far as myself, I think I have had a pretty good camp. I have to. I have got to step up, lead these other guys on the D-line.”
Nichols, who had 73 tackles and a whopping 30.5 stops for lost yardage as a senior at Springdale, says that leadership is being stressed by current defensive line coach Deke Adams.
“Yeah, obviously, being the oldest guy – or, the guy with probably the most experience here, I have to hold myself to a very high standard because I have to be able to hold the other guys in the room to a high standard, too,” Nichols said.”
Nichols offered up an example.
“Coach Adams told us to be at breakfast one time and I was late, and he told me ‘lead from the front,’ and that’s kind of something I’ve been working on this whole year, is I have to hold myself to a higher standard,”Nichols said. “I have to push myself harder and I have to be more detailed on the stuff coach wants us to do because I can’t lead the guys in the room if I’m not doing that. I can’t guide them in the right way.
“…Being one of the older guys, I know when I came in we had TJ Smith, Armon Watts, Sosa (McTelvin Agim) , JMarsh (Johnathan Marshall), we had a lot of good guys in front of me, and they’re all in the league right now. So I know as a young guy coming in you look to those other guys to see how it goes about because you get into college football and you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into. You think you do, but you really don’t, and so to come to a room where you know you have good leadership – that’s what’s best for the young guys.
“I can’t just put that on somebody else and sit back and play the back role, but if I know I’ve been in here and have good knowledge and I work hard, I’ve gotta set an example for the rest of the guys in the room.”
Nichols believes that having five different defensive line coaches at Arkansas has some positivity.
“I think it’s been a benefit,” Nichols said. “Obviously, some coaches, we’ve had some different fronts, some coaches coach differently but I’ve been able to apply things that I learned from different coaches and kind of make it as one.
“But I think this year, Coach Adams, he’s a very, very good coach and if I didn’t take anything else from my other coaches I think I’d still be just fine just because Coach Adams does a very good job with helping me understand not just defensive line play, but how defense works and how football works.
‘What is the offense trying to do? If I have the back to the left of me on the left side of the ball and I’m shaded on the right side of the ball, widen out a little bit because you’re probably gonna get zone to you.’ Just small things where it’s like, ‘you can play a lot faster.’ But I’ve learned a lot of things from the coaches that I’ve had previously.”
Nichols is quick to laud teammates Jashaud Stewart, Eric Gregory, Zach Williams for his improvement.
“…The success I have been having is really due to what the rest of the D-line is doing,” Nichols said. “They have been growing tremendously. Guys like Jashaud, Eric Gregory and Zach and the transfers we brought in, too.
“I think the D-line has been making tremendous strides. The plays we have been making, the plays I have been making. I couldn’t do it without them. I give them credit for my success in practice this year.”
The defensive line has taken a hit this week with Cameron Ball unable to practice since Sunday, Marcus Miller having arthroscopic knee surgery and likely being out for a couple of weeks and junior college transfer Taylor Lewis also not practicing.
Pittman was asked if he was worried about that trip being out.
“Sure we are,” Pittman said. “The thing about that is, we can move (Eric) Gregory inside, which you guys have been out there, we’ve done that a little bit. So you have him, Nic ( Nichols). And then I’ll tell you who’s come on a little bit is Nico Davillier. We’ve moved, because of these injuries, we’ve moved him inside.
“(Arkansas State transfer) Terry Hampton has been a blessing for us. He’s really done a nice job in there. So, I think it’ll benefit us whenever all of those guys come back, but Cam was playing well in, I think it was practice 3, he went through the whole practice, then had the situation after the practice.
“But, those injuries there last, I don’t know how long, anywhere from 7-10 days, and that’s all three of them. So I’m really concerned about why we would have that happen at this point with skull caps and all that stuff. We didn’t have three in spring ball.”
Photo by John D. James