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Nichols set to return to Nevada, looks to build off momentum of bowl performance

University of Nevada defensive lineman Tristan Nichols celebrates a play during the Wolf Pack’s win over San Diego State on Nov. 21. Nichols, a Saint Louis School graduate from Kihei, is returning to the Wolf Pack next season, utilizing the extra season allowed by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA ATHLETICS photos

When he was called upon, he was ready and responded in a big way. Now, Tristan Nichols is looking forward to one more go-round with his University of Nevada football team.

Nichols, a former Maui High School standout who transferred to Saint Louis School for his senior year, is one of 11 seniors who agreed to return to the Wolf Pack for another season in 2021, a move granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The defensive lineman was slowed in 2020 by a serious knee injury but appears to be rounding into form.

“I hate to say it, but COVID did work things out in my favor a little bit,” Nichols said Thursday.

He earned a spot on The Associated Press All-Bowl team for his four-tackle, two-quarterback sack performance in a 38-27 win over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise on Dec. 22.

Nevada’s Tristan Nichols gets around a Utah State player during the Wolf Pack’s win over the Aggies on Nov. 5.

“It’s really all I needed, honestly,” Nichols said. “I have always felt like I could play at the Division I level, but really to just be able to do what I did in the bowl game, I just feel like it’s a good place to build off of. It’s just basically giving me the confirmation that I know I can do these things.”

In six previous appearances in 2020, he had zero tackles.

“My role for the first couple years at Nevada was pass rushing,” said Nichols, who had four sacks in 11 games in 2019. “I was OK with that. Like, our scheme was big D-linemen up front and I wasn’t necessarily the biggest, so they just put me in on third down and said ‘go rush the passer.’

“Then (in 2020) we got a new (defensive coordinator, Brian Ward), so they changed the scheme and we have a four-man front now and it’s a little more tailored to defensive ends my size. So, I knew coming into this season that I was going to have more opportunity to play.”

He has played 18 games for the Wolf Pack (7-2 in 2020) since joining the program prior to the 2019 season from West Arizona Junior College — he has nine career tackles, six of which are sacks.

“I was so excited when I started having conversations with these kids; so many programs around the country have a hard time keeping their players, to be honest,” Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said Monday at his season-ending news conference. “Kids want to leave, kids want to go to the NFL, kids want to move on, and we don’t have that problem here. We just don’t. We’ve got 11 seniors that are going to return for the (2021) season.”

The first group of seniors Norvell singled out was four from the defensive line.

“I can’t even tell you how difficult it is to have mature, physical linemen in your program,” Norvell said. “And to have Sam Hammond, Zak Mahannah, Cam Toomer and Tristan Nichols all returning from this defensive line which we felt was really outstanding, it’s so exciting and so encouraging for our program.”

Nichols suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus in the final game of the 2019 season and was looking at a medical redshirt in 2020 before the NCAA mandate that COVID-19 would allow another season of eligibility to all who wanted it.

That decree opened the door for Nichols to safely play “five to 10” snaps a game this season as he gained strength and confidence in the knee.

“They just gave everybody a year back and my coaches knew what I’m capable of and this whole past season they didn’t really want to risk putting me out there with little return,” Nichols said. “They knew I had a whole other season to come back and COVID kind of hindered my rehab with my knee a little bit early on.”

Indeed, he had surgery on Dec. 9, 2019 in Nevada, flew home for winter break and then had to undergo another surgery at Maui Memorial Medical Center on Dec. 19 when it was determined the knee was infected.

When COVID hit in March, “I was stuck here (on Maui) for a few months with physical therapy places shut down, so I had to do a whole lot of stuff on my own. But now my coaches just said they can’t wait for me to get back to 100 percent — they’re just really excited.”

Nichols admits that he is still gaining confidence in the injured left knee.

“It’s pretty much the same as the right one, I can run off of it and cut off of it and everything, but it’s the whole mental aspect of it,” Nichols said. “Just making myself feel that left one is just the same as my right one. That’s what everybody told me, too, that it was going to take over a year for me to feel back to my regular self.

“I was healthy this whole past season out on the field, but I could tell I just wasn’t myself.”

Nichols, who is currently on Maui, will return to Reno next week and is set to graduate in human development and family sciences this spring. He will return to play for the team while taking a graduate internship with the football program where he will get a chance to learn about the ins and outs of coaching as well.

“I hope to learn the professional aspect of it, not just the player-coach relationship,” he said. “That’s really important to me.”

First, the NFL is on his mind “every day.”

Nichols points to the success that Nevada defensive line coach Jackie Shipp has had sending players to the NFL over the years and remembers a senior season with Tua Tagovailoa at Saint Louis as signs that he may have what the NFL is looking for in a speed edge rusher.

Norvell said the “defensive line is a real strength of our’s. … I believe we have so much more in us as a program. I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we can be and that’s our charge.”

Nichols can’t wait to be part of that in 2021. After his knee surgeries, he dropped to 212 pounds, but has sprung back up to 245, nearing the weight he wants to hold during his final college season.

He showed what he can do in the bowl game when two other defensive linemen were out injured.

“I just basically feel great to know that I was capable of that because I didn’t really have to ever show (the coaches),” Nichols said. “So, it was a really pleasant surprise. Coach Norvell was just so excited for me.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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