The defensive line has a leader of men at the helm, a man who has played at the Division I level himself.
This coach has been not only been one of the most disciplined coaches on the staff, but the most vocal one on not just the practice fields, but also during the Kentucky game that saw the Golden Eagles score 34 points unanswered at Kentucky.
“One thing about football is the biggest plays is the one right up, right now,” said USM defensive line coach Derek Nicholson. “You’re never guaranteed another play, you’re never guaranteed another game.”
It was just before the final second ticked off the clock that coach Nicholson called over all of his defensive linemen for an impromptu pep talk. He told all of his players how proud he was of them and to finish the job they had started when they were down 25 points just 30 minutes earlier.
“We missed opportunities, we missed sacks, we had too many missed tackles,” Nicholson said. “We have to take advantage of those opportunities. I emphasized that at halftime that if you get the opportunity to make a play, be a playmaker. Make that play.”
Coach Nicholson has been impacting the lives of players such as Dylan Bradley, a senior who has started off his season with seven tackles, with two of those coming for a loss against Kentucky in the comeback victory. He also added one sack. Jerry McCorvey has been added to the starting lineup to help beef up the defensive line also at six-feet, three-inches and 250 lbs.
“Being a leader is self explanatory,” Bradley said. “You take [-er] away and it says lead. You have to lead. Especially on the field, you have to lead by example.”
But what Nicholson has done is not only broaden the experience and statistical output of Bradley, but also helped to guide the emergence of players like Xavier “Paw Paw” Thigpen, who blocked a punt while adding two tackles and a sack in the contest. Rod Crayton is finally seeing game action, along with LaDarius Harris coming in as a true sophomore.
With all of those guys being on the bench while the starters could have been gassed during the contest during Kentucky, it was essential for the depth to be stressed during the game. Also, it was important for the depth to come in at important moments.
“We got off the field on third down,” Nicholson said. “We eliminated big things. Those are the things that seemed so small. We gave up five big plays in the first half but those five big plays resulted in touchdowns. All it takes is for one guy to bust for that to happen.”
Nicholson comes to Southern Miss after spending last season at Alcorn State under Jay Hopson. Last year, the defensive line boasted the likes of Naim Mustafaa, Andrew Bolton and Michael Smith. The defensive line now boasts new names, with most of those relating to Nicholson and his previous experience himself.
Nicholson has five years of coaching experience spanning from high school in North Carolina and Florida, as a linebacker coach at Akron and Louisville and last season at Alcorn State.
The defensive line at Southern Miss has turned out several NFL prospects in recent years. Khyri Thornton was taken in the third round by the Green Bay Packers in 2014 and Rakeem Nunez-Roches went to the Kansas City Chiefs in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Now, Dylan Bradley will hopefully be the next in line to join the NFL ranks as a former Southern Miss defensive lineman under Nicholson’s tutelage.
With the energy that Nicholson brings, he hopes to instill in his players the same enthusiasm as he has within himself. Often on the sidelines during practices and the games, Nicholson can be seen yelling and emphasizing his points to his players while teaching him the lessons that he learned himself as a player.
“I bring a bunch of enthusiasm and energy,” Nicholson said. “I’m never going to change and that’s just me. That’s a part of who I am, that’s my make-up.”