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A linebacker to look up to

Stephen Nicholas, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound linebacker, runs from the locker room like he just noticed a wayward running back outside the door, his face flushed with embarrassment.

Running back Andre Hall, who refers to Nicholas as the “breakdance king,” had just requested a performance.

“Show us the breakdance, dawg,” Hall said as Nicholas – with a big smile on his face – made his quick exit.

“He’s a little shy,” Hall said as players, cramped into the locker room during media day on Aug. 9, laugh and howl loudly. “But believe me, he can do it all, spin on the floor and everything.”

Nicholas, who enters his junior season fresh off a standout sophomore season, is just as nimble on the football field where — it goes without saying — he’s not nearly as shy.

In fact, he’s bashful in the sense that he bashes ball carriers.

Last season, Nicholas started all 11 games, finishing second on the team in both tackles (98) and tackles for loss (11). Defensive back Javon Camon, the leading tackler last year, graduated, leaving Nicholas as an undisputed leader for a USF defense that struggled last season.

“He leads by example,” said linebackers coach Rolly Burnam. “He’s a very humble guy and he doesn’t talk much.”

Coach Jim Leavitt recognizes Nicholas’ work ethic and humble demeanor — “I don’t really think I’m a leader,” Nicholas said. “I just play hard,” — and has nothing but praise for him.

“I think the guys (on defense) should look up to him,” Leavitt said. “I know I do.”

Leavitt isn’t the only one.

“Steve’s a great all-around person,” said Hall. “He’s probably the best person I’ve ever met. He’s always smiling, he’s always positive. There’s nothing negative about Steve.”

Nicholas is able to play all three linebacker positions — which he did last season — but plays inside more than anywhere else. As far as his versatility, sophomore safety Danny Verpaele goes as far to say that Nicholas “is so athletic he could probably play safety or corner if he wanted to.”

“His ability to roam around and play the three linebacker positions is invaluable and that’s what is so unique about him,” defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz said. “He’s a big piece of our defense and definitely a leader.”

Last season, USF ranked among the worst defenses in the nation statistically. The Bulls, who return a significant number of defensive starters this season, finished ranked 94th in points allowed per game (31.9) and allowed opposing offenses to score at least 40 points in six games. More so, USF ranked 107th in turnover margin, with the defense gaining 11 turnovers, which was tied for the second lowest total in the nation last season.

Nicholas acknowledges injuries and inexperience as possible reasons for those numbers, but he won’t call them excuses.

“Mainly, we just didn’t come out and get it done,” he said. “You can say people got hurt, you can say we were young, you can say anything; we just didn’t get it done.”

Questions have been raised whether Nicholas, who is 17 credits shy of a degree in communications, will bypass his last year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft after this season.

Nicholas says he isn’t thinking about that now -“I just want to play and win games this year,” he said – but at least one NFL-bound teammate thinks Nicholas, whether it be next year or the year after, belongs in the big leagues.

“I played with a guy in junior college who went second round,” Hall said. “And Steve’s better than him.”

The sixth of eight sons, Nicholas grew up in Jacksonville, where he attended Lee High School. His senior year, he compiled 151 tackles and was the Bulls’ No. 1 linebacker recruit.

Leavitt, though, was impressed by more than just his speed and athleticism.

“His dad’s an ordained minister and his mom’s a great lady,” he said. “(Stephen) has always been a very special person since I’ve known him. His character is so solid.”

After his breakout year in 2004, Nicholas has received loads of recognition leading up to the 2005 season. He is predicted by many college football publications to earn All-Big East honors and ranked among the nation’s top linebackers.

Like a weak block, Nicholas easily deflects the extra attention.

“That stuff is no big deal,” he said. “Winning a conference championship — that’s all I’m thinking about.”

If that happens, Nicholas probably wouldn’t mind breakdancing on the 50-yard line.