Bilal Nichols is done losing: The face of the Hens

vs Del State 8-31-17    17      -X2
Courtesy of Mark Campbell
Senior Bilal Nichols pushes past a Delaware State defender in the Blue Hens season-opening win against the Hornets.

BY
ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

On a third and nine late in the third quarter at Virginia Tech, Bilal Nichols somehow finds himself one-on-one with the Hokies’ center.

It is the rare occasion in this game that Nichols, the nose guard in Danny Rocco’s 3-4 defensive scheme, is not double-teamed. The Delaware pass rushers come full throttle at the quarterback and Nichols quickly drops him for a five-yard loss.

On the next play, the Hokies’ kicker misses a 51-yard field goal –– pushed to the brink of his range by the previous loss.

It’s an easy play to overlook late in the game, saving a seemingly meaningless three points against an overpowered opponent, but it is the type of high-energy play that Nichols has made routine in his four years at Delaware. In many ways, he has become the face of this Blue Hens football team. On the field, he’s a physical specimen who can clog the middle and get to the passer. Off of it, he is an elected captain and a “phenomenal leader,” according to Defensive Line Coach Levern Belin.

Then there is his literal face, which is on advertisements for Delaware football across Newark and plastered upon the concrete pillars of Delaware Stadium.

He has the eyes of NFL scouts and is consistently touted as one of the best at his position in the conference, but for Nichols, this season is about one thing: winning.

“We haven’t done anything, we haven’t made the playoffs, we haven’t had a winning season,” Nichols, a graduate of Hodgson Vo-Tech, said of his senior class. “We’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to go out with a bang, because we know we have the talent to do it.”

The praise is not lost on Nichols, who says seeing the promotions of himself around town is probably “the most humbling experience” of his life. But you’re more likely to find him in the weight room or the film room than roaming the city streets.

“He wants to be a winner,” Belin said. “This is his last opportunity and he’s putting everything that he has in his physical body to prepare to make that happen.”

“That kid is one of the hardest if not the hardest worker on our team –– one of the hardest workers I’ve been around in my five years here,” fellow senior captain and center Brody Kern said. “When we have off or we go on spring break or something like that, I always check my phone and he’ll be in this building right here [the fieldhouse] working out, when he didn’t even have to.”

Nichols’ journey to this point in his life was not without challenge. He lived with his single mother until the age of five, when his grandparents took over raising him in Chester, Pa. Before entering the eighth grade, the family moved to Newark and a year later Nichols began on the path to stardom as a football and basketball standout at Hodgson. His senior year, the Silver Eagles won the state championship with Nichols, a two-way player at tight end and outside linebacker, and Delaware safety Ray Jones, who then played quarterback and outside linebacker, leading the way.

As a sophomore in 2015, Nichols told the News Journal, “I’m not sure how it would have worked out,” had he stayed on his original path.

“He always had a positive demeanor about himself,” Frank Moffett Jr., Nichols’ high school football coach said. “I credit a lot of that to his grandparents. They basically raised him on academics first. I remember they used to always tell me ‘we raised him to where it’s nice that he eventually did get an athletic scholarship, but we’re raising him to get an academic scholarship’.”

Nichols also credits his uncle for the guidance he provided, saying he “helped me get to where I am today.”

Should Nichols, who leads Delaware in sacks and pass deflections, make an NFL roster, he would become the eighth active Blue Hen in the pros and the latest defensive lineman since Zach Kerr, who graduated in 2014. But for Nichols, dreams of being a professional are on the back-burner; it’s his current teammates that motivate him.

“We’ve been through a lot these last four years that I’ve been here and we just want to win, so everything that I do is for [my teammates],” Nichols said. “They are like my brothers, blood couldn’t make us closer.”

Nichols, a sociology major, said that if he doesn’t turn pro, he wants to work with troubled youth as a social worker.

“Growing up, it was hard for me, there were certain things I wish I had,” Nichols said. “I want to be that person that they can look up to. They can be like, ‘he did it, so I can do it too.’”

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