The first day of Drew Nickles’ fifth University of Delaware football season last Friday was a pleasant throwback.
The linebacker felt as good as he had since he was a sophomore starter in 2019. Nickles has had two injury-plagued seasons since.
But as Delaware prepares for a 2022 season in which its ambitions are high, Nickles is among several key returnees from injuries as he bolsters a defense poised to be a UD strength.
“I feel great,” Nickles said on the first day of camp. “ … I just gotta kick the rust off a little bit.”
After Tuesday’s practice, Delaware defensive coordinator Manny Rojas said Nickles has done that and quickly rounded back into the form that makes him so valuable to Delaware.
“He’s a long linebacker,” Rojas said of the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Nickles. “He’s athletic. He can rush the passer; he can drop in coverage. So being able to have him and the fluidity that he gives us to put him back in the game in certain spots, certain positions is phenomenal.”
Nickles dealt with right shoulder trouble during the 2019 season and had surgery after that year. His recovery went fine but in 2020, when spring drills and the subsequent season were dashed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nickles pulled his hamstring during fall practice.
The hamstring problem continued to plague him some in the 2021 spring season. Though Nickles did appear in all eight games for the FCS semifinalist Hens, his playing time was limited and he made just 14 tackles.
Nickles’ 2021 fall season was almost undermined from the start when he had to have an appendectomy near the beginning of August training camp. When he did return, left shoulder trouble surfaced that also required surgery. Nickles played in just four games last fall for the 5-6 Hens and did not participate in 2022 spring drills.
Those were difficult setbacks for a player who made an immediate impact after arriving at Delaware as its first recruit out of Palisades High School in rural Upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
“All football players have to deal with it but it’s tough not to be out there playing with everybody,” he said. “That’s what you miss the most.
“Just today [Friday], it was great being out there with everybody, running a little bit, hitting, getting used to everyone. I felt like a little kid out there.”
Nickles played in 11 games as a valuable true freshman reserve for the Blue Hens’ 2018 NCAA qualifiers. He then stepped immediately into the starting lineup as Delaware rebuilt its defense in 2019, finishing fourth on the team with 61 tackles, including 12 takedowns along with a forced fumble and fumble recovery in Delaware’s near-upset at Pitt.
In Delaware’s 3-3-5 set, Nickles often lines up alongside Johnny Buchanan and Liam Trainer, with former outside linebacker Anthony Toro primarily seeing defensive line duty now.
All are “run and hit guys” who sometimes must move outside the tackles, Rojas said, to cover more ground and be more involved in pass defense.
“We can do both with [Nickles],” Rojas said. “That’s the unique thing about Drew. His height and length allow us to do multiple things with him. Keep him in the tackle box, put him out in coverage, but also bring him off the edge and rush the passer. So he has a lot of versatility with that.
Nickles treasures that mobility, moving vertically and horizontally, handling running and pass plays and coping with the mayhem swirling around him.
“It’s football,” Nickles said. “Get the guy with the ball.
“It’s definitely aggressive – see ball, get ball,” Nickles added of Delaware’s defensive approach.
With that in mind, Delaware will try to regain the penchant for forcing turnovers that keyed its 2021 spring success, when it was sixth nationally in FCS with 18 takeaways in eight games. Last fall, Delaware had just 13 in 11 games.
“We have a good team and a lot of good players, so it’s just a lot of fun,” Nickles said. “And it’s a lot of guys I’ve been playing with for a while.”
That’s also something first-year coach Ryan Carty said he welcomed after not having much of that veteran defense as part of spring drills.
“It felt good out there today, our starting 11 and close to the two-deep out there on defense,” Carty said as camp opened. “That was fun to see a different energy and different communication and guys who had played together before.”
Nickles, Buchanan, Toro, cornerbacks Amonte Strothers and Justis Henley and safeties Kedrick Whitehead and Noah Plack have been starting most games since 2019.
“When the going gets tough, you know you always have someone next to you who is going to give their all and you can trust,” Nickles said of how valuable all that experience is. “It’s huge.”
Nickles is among several key Delaware players returning from injuries poised to give the Blue Hens a boost in 2022. That list also includes:
Nolan Henderson, QB: The most important and the most obvious of those bouncing back from injuries, Henderson has looked sharp in camp after missing the final seven games in 2021 following abdominal surgery. Delaware was 3-1 with him and 2-5 without him last fall, when Henderson completed 47 of 80 passes (58.7%) for 646 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. His 70.7 completion percentage in the spring of 2021 was a school single-season record.
Khory Spruill, RB: The 6-1, 240-pound Spruill’s bruising running style was the perfect complement to the elusive and speedy Dejoun Lee in the 2021 NCAA semifinal spring season, and it keyed the Blue Hens’ first-round playoff win over Sacred Heart. But Spruill missed the last seven games last fall, with an ankle injury. He now has plenty of competition for backfield duty, but Spruill gives Delaware an experienced, proven back. He’s a sixth-year player with 734 yards on 190 career carries and five TDs who has also caught 19 passes. “He looks great,” Carty said.
Luke Frederick, TE: Frederick played in 20 straight games for Delaware in 2019 and the 2021 spring, often doing unheralded duty reliably, catching three passes but mainly providing the necessary blocking. He also blocked a punt against North Dakota State in 2019. Frederick was sidelined throughout the fall of 2021. While fewer tight ends are employed in Carty’s offense than his predecessor’s, Frederick is a player who can earn time on the field. “Love him,” Carty said. “He’s doing a great job, practicing very well. He’s a versatile kid. That position is deep, and they’re all pretty good at everything, which is nice.”
Nick Coomer, DL: Coomer had become a reliable member of the defense when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear at Rutgers last fall. The 6-3, 275-pound fourth-year player’s return significantly boosts the defensive front, where Coomer had proven to be a playmaker with 4½ tackles for loss, including 2½ sacks, 28 overall tackles and a fumble recovery in 11 career games.
Jack Hall, DL: Hall made a quick impact, getting in five games as a true freshman during the 2021 spring, and then three last fall before hurting his foot. Rojas said Tuesday Coomer and Hall are both working hard and looking good. A strong defensive line requires significant depth allowing for plenty of situational rotation beyond proven veterans such as Artis Hemmingway, Tommy Walsh, Chase McGowan and Toro. “I think we’ve got one of the best defensive fronts we’ve had,” Rojas said of a unit now coached by Sam Daniels, the former James Madison All-American who worked at CAA rival Richmond the last two seasons.
The Blue Hens are 19th in the Stats Perform preseason FCS Top 25 media poll. … Linebacker Dillon Trainer has been temporarily sidelined by a knee injury. … Stevon Brown, a starter at guard during the spring and fall 2021 seasons, has been working at tackle as well as guard. “That’s what we’re going to recruit,” Carty said about offensive linemen being versatile enough to be interchangeable.
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