Nichols set to help plug middle for Hen defense

Bilal Nichols (6-foot-5, 300-pounds) has played in 23 games over the past two seasons. That makes him a player Delaware expects to plug into a starting defensive tackle role without missing a beat. (UD sports information/Mark Campbell)

Bilal Nichols (6-foot-5, 300-pounds) has played in 23 games over the past two seasons. That makes him a player Delaware expects to plug into a starting defensive tackle role without missing a beat. (UD sports information/Mark Campbell)

NEWARK — Bilal Nichols isn’t a kid anymore.

The problem is that, in some ways, he wishes he still was one.

Bilal Nichols

Bilal Nichols

“I’m considered old here,” the junior defensive lineman said with a laugh during Delaware’s football media day. “It’s weird.

“It just came so fast. I still remember my first day of freshman year. It’s just crazy. We’ve got so many younger guys — sophomores and freshmen. So now, when they look to me for advice, I’m just like, ‘Oh man.’”

The fact is, on a squad with only 10 seniors, Nichols does qualify as a veteran.

The Blue Hens, who open the season by hosting Delaware State on Sept. 1, have 60 players who are either freshmen or sophomores.

The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Nichols, on the other hand, has played in 23 games over the past two seasons. That makes him a player Delaware expects to plug into a starting defensive tackle role without missing a beat.

“When we bring a guy in and we coach him for a couple years and you develop him, we ask, can he be a great 20-year-old?” said coach Dave Brock. “Can he be the player you want him to be, can you get him close to his ceiling by the time he’s 20? If he starts the last two or three years in our program, now you have a guy who can be a dominant-type player.

“I think Bilal’s going to be a dynamic player. He’s a physical presence. He’s a tremendous competitor. He’s a great teammate. We’re thrilled with what he’s doing.”

A former Hodgson standout from Newark, Nichols — who turns 20 next month — has already seen plenty of action as the understudy to graduated Josh Plummer the last couple years.

He’s been in on 48 tackles, with a pair of sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.

It doesn’t hurt that Nichols will be lining up next to former CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year Blaine Woodson, who’s started 22 of the first 23 games of his career.

Junior center Brody Kern, who regularly faces both defensive tackles in practice, said a couple years of college weight-training have really made a difference in Nichols.

“He’s a beast,” said Kern. “He’s got fast hands. Going up against him and Blaine every day, is definitely a test for our ‘O’ line. Both of them have gone nowhere but up over these last couple years and it’s going to continue this year.”

“Our two ‘DT’s,’ Blaine and Bilal, are two of the best in the conference,” said senior offensive lineman Connor Bozick. “We’ve played against big guys, we’ve played against BCS guys, and they’re just as good.”

Defense is one of the cornerstones that fourth-year coach Brock is trying to build his program around. A year ago, the Hens were ranked 17th nationally against the run (123.5 yards per game) while allowing only eight rushing touchdowns — the eighth-lowest total in the country.

Nichols is right in the middle of that defense. But Nichols said it’s depth along the defensive front that makes him excited about the season.

“Our practice reps, everything’s a competition,” he said. “You’ve always got somebody breathing down your neck that wants that spot, too. That’s making us better as a team.

“You feel like you can give your all on every single play and you know there’s a person right behind you that can come in and pick up the slack. It’s not going to be any different in the energy or play when you come out of the game. It’s great. I remember, when I first came in, there were about four ‘D’ tackles. Now there’s about eight of us.”

Of course, competition means that Nichols will have to work hard to stay on the field, too.

He worked out in the off-season like he still has a lot to prove.

“I just tried to work on my explosiveness and get faster and stronger,” said Nichols. “And I’m coming in with a year’s more experience, which is worthwhile. I think it’s really going to help me a lot this year.”

Extra points

The Hens are slated to hold their last preseason scrimmage on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Delaware Stadium. … Delaware has 22 in-state players on this year’s roster.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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