ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR
When Bilal Nichols hung up the phone with fellow Blue Hen alum Matt Nagy Saturday afternoon, all Nichols had to do was utter “Chicago Bears,” for his family and friends to erupt in celebration.
This moment was the culmination of years of hard work, in which Nichols built himself into a prototype, 6’4’’ 306 lbs. defensive lineman. With a smile on his face, the soft-spoken Nichols was embraced after the call by family and friends at his Newark home.
“Honestly, I’m speechless,” Nichols told Bluehens.com. “This is a moment that most people only dream of and to be given this opportunity, I’m extremely humbled and grateful.”
Chicago, led by Nagy, the team’s first-year head coach, selected Nichols with the 145th overall pick in the fifth round on day three of the 2018 NFL Draft. He is the first Delaware player to be drafted since tight end Nick Boyle in 2015.
Nichols, who played multiple positions in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes across his four years at Delaware, projects as the Bears’ backup defensive end, according to the team.
In February, Nagy, Delaware’s all-time leader in career passing yards, became the first Blue Hen alum to serve as a head coach of an NFL team. He brought Brian Ginn, a teammate from 1997-1999 and a longtime Delaware assistant coach (2000-2016), along with him to serve as an offensive quality control assistant.
Friday night, the close friends discussed the possibility of adding another Blue Hen to the fold.
“I kind of had a feeling from talks I had had with others, certainly if he was there in the fifth round, we had a good shot of [drafting Nichols],” Ginn, who worked with Newark High School’s football team in 2017, said. “Matt [Nagy] and I had talked about it briefly the night before, how cool it would be to be able to draft a Blue Hen, but you never know how those things are going to work out.”
When the Bears hired Ginn shortly after Nagy, Ginn immediately began fielding questions about Nichols, in what he described as the “information-gathering phase” of the draft preparation process.
“Bilal is such a great guy,” Ginn said. “He made my part of this process easy. He’s truly a great guy, works hard, knows when to have a good time, but knows when it’s business time.”
While Nichols was always on the Bears’ radar, his draft stock rose significantly due to his play in practices for the East-West Shrine game, which earned him a late invite to the Senior Bowl. His trip to the Senior Bowl was parlayed into a spot at the NFL Draft Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, at which Nichols clocked the second-fastest 40-yard dash among defensive lineman (4.95).
Nichols, who came to Delaware as a 270 lb freshman, graduated a semester early and trained in Florida in preparation for his all-star games, the combine and his pro day at Delaware.
One of many in attendance at the combine, was Frank Moffett Jr., Nichols’ high school coach at Hodgson Vo-Tech High School in Newark. Nichols is the first Hodgson graduate to be drafted to the NFL.
“We had a big group text message going on with all my coaching staff here at Hodgson,” Moffett Jr. said. “Not only myself, but the assistant coaches who had an opportunity to be a part of his life were pretty excited for him as well.”
“It couldn’t have happened to a better young man.”
Nichols lived with his single mother until the age of five, when his grandparents took over raising him in Chester Pa. The family moved to Newark before his eighth grade year, where a year later, at Hodgson he became a football and basketball standout. His senior year, the Silver Eagles won the state championship with Nichols, a two-way player at tight end and outside linebacker, and Delaware linebacker Ray Jones, who then played quarterback and outside linebacker, leading the way.
Last season Nichols registered 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 11 games — his first season playing as the nose tackle in Head Coach Danny Rocco’s 3-4 defensive scheme. In that role, Nichols often clogged the middle to open favorable one-on-one matchups for Delaware’s defensive ends. In four years at Delaware, Nichols, across multiple spots on the defensive line, collected 104 tackles, 9.5 sacks and two interceptions.
The heaviest critique of Nichols from draft experts like the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock heading into the draft, was his motor. Nichols’ raw collegiate stat production does not match that of many of his peers and looks less impressive when Delaware’s level of competition is taken into account.
But Nichols’ physical tools and intangible leadership qualities are undeniable.
“The sky’s the limit with that kid,” Delaware center Brody Kern said in September. “He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s physical. He’s everything you want in a d-lineman, everything you want in a player, a teammate, he’s got it.”