Virginia Tech football’s defense has been plenty dominant so far in 2013, but the Pittsburgh Panthers and the rest of college football got a taste of the unit’s future thanks to Dadi Nicolas’ breakout game.
Tech’s defensive line wreaked havoc on Tom Savage all game long, accruing seven sacks in the game, and Nicolas was a huge part of that.
The redshirt sophomore earned three sacks and seven tackles on the day, as he consistently raced past Pitt’s offensive line.
Nicolas had previously only been used sparingly to spell fellow defensive end J.R. Collins. But Saturday’s game gave Tech fans a glimpse of the defense’s very promising future once Nicolas enters the starting lineup.
The Hokies dominated the Panthers offensive line all game long, but Nicolas was particularly effective.
Instead of playing at his traditional position on the defensive line, defensive coordinator Bud Foster devised a new role for Nicolas.
Jack Tyler said Dadi Nicolas played a whip LB spot today with essentially one responsibility: "Go after the QB." Nicolas had 3 sacks #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) October 12, 2013
The Virginia Cavaliers used a similar tactic to pile up seven sacks against Pitt, and Nicolas was devastatingly effective at whip.
He was largely allowed to line up past the outside shoulder of the left tackle, a tactic that let him use his speed to blow by opposing linemen.
His blinding speed is on perfect display in this video clip of his sack at the end of the second quarter.
He’s able to build a running start on this play, and then uses a nice swim move to shed his lone blocker.
Nicolas is already physically imposing at 6’3”, 224 pounds, but when he flashes this kind of explosiveness as well, he’s very difficult to stop on the outside.
He made life very difficult for Savage, but Nicolas didn’t exclusively wreak havoc in the passing game.
The Panthers could only muster 74 yards on the ground, and Nicolas’ speed on the outside was a big reason why.
Nicolas made three different stops in the running game, each time holding Pitt to gains of two yards or less.
The fact that he lined up so far away from the middle of the field didn’t seem to matter. Just watch the way he sprints across the field to take down Rachid Ibrahim from behind in this clip.
The mere threat of Nicolas’ speed even discouraged the Panthers from running to the outside, and they largely stuck to ineffective inside runs.
Pitt only averaged 0.9 yards per carry for the game, showing exactly how inept Nicolas and the rest of the defense rendered the ground game.
However, for all of Nicolas’ abilities in the short term, his true value lies in his future potential.
Defensive Line Depth
While Collins and James Gayle are both supremely talented ends, they’re also both about to depart Blacksburg.
Even backup Tyrel Wilson is a redshirt senior, so this defensive line group will lose a lot of talent by the time the 2014 season starts.
But that’s where Nicolas comes in. He’ll likely start alongside Corey Marshall, who is redshirting this year, since the only other viable options on the roster are redshirt freshmen Ken Ekanem and Dewayne Alford.
Marshall has some starting experience, but Nicolas’ pass-rushing talents will be really valuable for the line.
The Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter even noted that, although his role will likely stay limited this year, Nicolas has a real future at Tech:
It figures to be a one-week deal. Tech saw a matchup to exploit against Pitt, and Nicolas lacks the pass coverage skills to be a full-time whip linebacker. But Tyler sees tons of potential.
“Down the road, I can’t even imagine what he’s going to turn into,” Tyler said. “Because once he gets everything going mentally, physically he’s there.”
The mental side of the game is really all that’s holding Nicolas back. For all of the potential Tyler sees in the sophomore, he also told reporters that the team is still working on Nicolas’ football knowledge.
But that’s no reason for Hokies fans to despair. After all, Nicolas only played one year of football in high school, so he’s very much still learning.
The bottom line is that Nicolas flashed some serious potential against the Panthers, and he’s not going anywhere.
He’s made some poor decisions in the past, but he seems to be back on track and ready to contribute.
By the time 2014 rolls around, Nicolas will be the big star for Bud Foster’s defense everyone is talking about.