Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Bordelon previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Springdale. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America, and was awarded 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Pittman, teammates see great value in Nichols
Arkansas defensive lineman Isaiah Nichols takes part in a drill Thursday, March 11, 2021, during practice at the university practice facility in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas safety and captain Jalen Catalon believes the Razorbacks’ defense is in solid shape after only one preseason practice.
The reasoning, in his mind, is simple: Arkansas has leaders at each position. In the SEC, any success experienced on that side of the ball often is a result of quality defensive line play.
Catalon is confident in the Razorbacks’ centerpiece up front — Isaiah Nichols, a redshirt senior tackle from Springdale.
“In the middle, it starts with (Nichols). He has been leading well,” Catalon said Friday.
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Nichols, who has changed his jersey number from 93 to 33 for this season, was front and center with Arkansas’ first-team defense during the first workout of the preseason. To his left was Jonesboro native Jashaud Stewart, and defensive tackle Eric Gregory and end Zach Williams were at his right.
With expected starter and playmaker Taurean Carter out of the lineup as he recovers from a spring-time knee injury, Nichols is being counted on to play a key role in 2022.
Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman, entering his third year in charge of the program, said the lineman is up for the challenge. Nichols finished with 21 tackles last season.
"Nichols is valuable. Nichols is as valuable as anybody we have on our team,” Pittman said. “He's a guy that is a leader on our team. In recruiting, he's a senior and helped us in recruiting. The guy has got a lot of value, but more than anything he's got value because he's a good football player.
“Right now, there's a significant difference in him and the next guys in.”
Starting center Ricky Stromberg, who will see a lot of Nichols throughout the preseason, and linebacker Bumper Pool echoed Catalon’s and Pittman’s thoughts. Pool said he watched Nichols take a vocal leadership role early in spring and summer workouts.
Stromberg added Nichols is a “great teammate” and will continue to develop his game to become consistently productive.
“I came in with Isaiah, so we have just grown together,” said Pool, the team’s leading returning tackler (125). “Seeing his leadership is unbelievable. On the field, we know we need guys to step up on our D-line and I think he's very capable of it.”
PHOTOS: Day 1 of Razorbacks' football preseason
Nichols, listed at 6-3 and 302 pounds, set career highs last season in tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5). He also forced a fumble in the season opener against Rice.
Pro Football Focus figures show an increase in the level of his play, too. According to the site, he posted an overall defense grade of 69.7 over 362 snaps.
In the previous three seasons, he did not grade above 57. In fact, his grade last year led all Arkansas interior linemen, including John Ridgeway, who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys this spring.
“He's had a great spring camp, great summer workouts,” Pool said of Nichols. “Starting fall camp, I think he's doing a great job.”
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