In January 2007, Stephen Nicholas helped lead the Bulls to their only bowl win – a 24-7 victory over the East Carolina Pirates in the Papajohns.com Bowl. That April, he was taken as the tenth pick of the fourth round of the NFL draft.
This year, Nicholas, who finished his USF career at or near the top of a number of all-time records, is entering his second season with the Atlanta Falcons.
After one season in the league, Nicholas said he has learned that the NFL game and the players he goes up against are different from his days as a Bull.
“When you get to this level, everybody is much smarter,” he said. “The players are all faster – they have better strength and better technique. Everything about their game is very sound at this level.”
Nicholas went into the NFL as a sound player himself. He finished his USF career second on the Bulls’ all-time tackles list (326) and had more sacks (20) and tackles for loss (53.5) than any player to wear a Bulls uniform.
During his first season as a professional, he was able to show some of that ability on the field. He finished his rookie campaign with 33 tackles and one sack, which he got in the Falcons’ season finale against the Seattle Seahawks.
With a year of NFL experience, Nicholas said he feels like a better player going into the Falcons’ training camp, and it’s because of his teammates.
“I learned a lot from (starters) Keith Brookings and Michael Boley,” he said. “The main thing they were trying to get across was that I have to understand the game and be a pro. This is what I do. They told me to be a student of the game because, at this level, everybody’s smart and things unfold really fast.”
Nicholas may see more former Bulls on the field this season: cornerbacks Mike Jenkins (28th overall to the Dallas Cowboys) and Trae Williams (drafted in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars) may see their first snaps.
The Falcons open their preseason Aug. 9 against the Jaguars. Despite having to play his former teammate, Nicholas had nothing but positives to say about Jenkins and Williams.
“I think both of those guys are great,” Nicholas said. “They are both very fast, very smart, talented football players, and I think they will do just fine in this league.”
In 2007, the Falcons were in the news a lot. In August, quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty to charges of financing a dog-fighting ring. In December, coach Bobby Petrino resigned unexpectedly with three games remaining in the season.
These could have been distractions, but Nicholas said he had his teammates to help him stay focused.
“Just making it into this football league means adversity is going to come,” he said. “The great ones stand up and play through it. The atmosphere was basically just to focus on the next game and do our job. We knew we had a job to do, and the team would go on whether I’m there or anybody’s there. They will play more football games.”
While playing in Atlanta, Nicholas was able to keep up with his alma mater. He said he feels like the Bulls, who finished 9-4 and earned a berth in the Brut Sun Bowl, have nowhere to go but up.
“We are getting better and better,” Nicholas said. “I knew as soon as I got to South Florida that, from a talent standpoint, we could play with anybody in the world. The program is only going to be 12 years old, and to see what they’ve done in the first 11 years is overwhelming. I believe our program is going to get better and better, and I’m looking forward to them being better than they were last year.”