After Division I-AA Nicholls State piled 267 yards on the USF defense, coach Jim Leavitt knew he needed a change. But it wasn’t a new scheme or formation that Leavitt cited as turning the Bulls’ fortunes. One man, linebacker Stephen Nicholas, has made the most impact.
“Really what happened was after the Nicholls game, we had three weeks, and we knew we needed to shift,” Leavitt said. “We needed to do something different, play better defense. By moving Stephen to SAM (strong-side) linebacker that was one of our biggest moves. That gave us a lot of flexibility to do a lot of things.”
The problem originally surfaced against Alabama. The Crimson Tide piled up 33 second-half points and 188 yards rushing. Fatigue and dehydration ran rampant through the USF lineup.
“You notice the Alabama game we played nickel defense almost the whole game against a team that could run the ball because we had some cramps and Courtney (Davenport) played the SAM and we had no place to go,” Leavitt said. “We thought we had some solutions, but we didn’t.”
The solution was to put Davenport back on the weak side where he started all 11 games last season and insert Nicholas into the first team. With Nicholas in the mix, the Bulls defense has limited Army to 17 yards on the ground, the second lowest total vs. a I-A opponent in USF history, and nullified a TCU ground attack that averages 175 yards per contest. The No.13 Horned Frogs carried the ball 45 times for 100 yards Friday. That was Nicholas’ best game yet, as he recorded seven tackles.
While his coach heaps ample praise on his shoulders, the reserved Nicholas shrugged off the attention, saying he is not really surprised by his success. Nicholas was earmarked to make an impression last season, but a broken ankle in the third game ended his freshman year. The set back may have been a blessing in disguise. as Nicholas saw game action and he could receive a medical redshirt for last year, giving him three more years of eligibility after this season.
“It was a blessing,” Nicholas said. “It truly was. I got to play, like, three games. When I got hurt, I didn’t think it was good. I thought it was real bad. But I’ll get the year back and a little experience.”
As the only freshman starter on defense, Nicholas is gaining valuable experience as he adjusts to his new position. The product of Jacksonville’s Lee High School has 17 tackles this year and a pair of sacks.
“I’m used to looking in the backfield, but now I read the tight end, and what the tight end does determines what you do,” Nicholas said. “At WILL (weak-side linebacker), it’s different. “Comfortable? You could say that.”
Nicholas’ modesty isn’t shared by his teammates, who have already accepted the youngest starter as one of their own.
“He’s a freshman, but he’s like a junior in the mind,” senior linebacker Maurice Jones said. “He knows a lot of things. He has brought a lot to the defense — speed, ability. He can cover the tight end and his natural work ethic, just to be a redshirt freshman coming in, starting and making plays. He’s a playmaker.”