Coming off his visit to Kentucky last weekend, where he watched the Wildcats take down the Missouri Tigers 35-28, DeCarlos Nicholson was so impressed with what he witnessed that he committed to UK the day after he returned home.
If you were someone who didn’t see this commitment coming, don’t feel bad, you weren’t alone. Nicholson, a three-star JUCO cornerback prospect out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, gave very little hints about his intentions. He had just decommitted from Mississippi State in August and had a future official visit scheduled to go see Florida State in November.
But whatever he experienced in Lexington on his official visit was more than enough to convince him that it was the place for him. The surprise commitment on Monday afternoon was even a shock to his head coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
“I didn’t know it until he posted something about it on Twitter but I could tell when I saw him Sunday night, when he got back from his visit on Sunday night…I could tell the look on his face that he had enjoyed (the visit),” Jack Wright, the head coach at MGCCC told KSR on Wednesday. “Just reading DeCarlos and being around him for a while, I could tell he felt good about it. You could just tell he liked it. He was in a positive mindset, smiling, joking around, and I could tell that he enjoyed the trip.”
Nicholson is rated by 247 Sports as the No. 1 JUCO cornerback in the class of 2022 and the seventh-best JUCO player in the nation. He held official offers from the likes of Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Florida State, and Baylor before choosing UK. He even took visits to FSU and Ole Miss over the summer. Kentucky didn’t offer until July (four days after he initially committed to MSU), but the staff made up ground in impressive time.
What makes Nicholson such an interesting recruit for Kentucky moving forward is his unique perspective playing defensive back. You see, he didn’t always play cornerback. In fact, he never played one single snap on defense until he switched to cornerback ahead of the 2021 season. From the time he was in middle school, into high school, and then as a freshman at MGCCC, Nicholson played quarterback.
“DeCarlos played quarterback throughout his entire high school career and played quarterback for us as a freshman,” Coach Wright said. “We recruited him, offered him a scholarship before his senior year, not knowing if we were going to get him. He was kinda a highly sought-after prospect among some small colleges in Mississippi, including us. But we wound up getting him here, recruited him as a quarterback, had an opening at quarterback, he came in and competed.”
Not only did he just compete–he performed. Nicholson played in all six games at quarterback for MGCCC in 2020, splitting reps with fellow QB Phillip Short. The two played different styles though: Nicholson was someone who could easily break the pocket and gain yards with his legs, while Short is a more traditional pocket passing gun-slinger. The duo complemented each other quite well though.
MGCCC went 5-1 during a shortened COVID-19 year playing two completely different quarterbacks. Nicholson wound up completing 16-36 passes for 178 yards to go along with 210 yards on 25 rushes throughout the season.
“In his first game, he rushed for I would say right around 90 yards, in his very first college game, and threw for probably another 90. And that was splitting time with another quarterback who had about half the snaps in the game,” Coach Wright explained. “He made a huge impact right away. Just his athleticism. Anytime the pocket broke down in practice, he would pull the ball down and take off and every coach on the field would be like if he does that in a game, no one is going to be able to catch him. We could just see that. And so really just his overall athleticism just stands out. It’s something that jumps out at you. You watch his high school tape as a quarterback and any time he’s on the edge or the pocket breaks down, just an incredible athlete.”
Coach Wright actually undersold his one-time quarterback a tad. Nicholson did indeed pass for 90 yards on 5-7 passing in the 2020 season-opener but actually ran for 109 more on just eight carries.
As time went on and the MGCCC coaching staff was able to better evaluate the offense, they decided it would be best to stick to what they’ve been known for: throwing the ball all over the field. That meant promoting Short to full-time quarterback and moving Nicholson elsewhere. Luckily for the staff, Nicholson’s athleticism (and the MGCCC track record) made his next move an easy choice.
Switching from QB to CB
Nicholson is hardly the first MGCCC cornerback to make it to the Divison I level. The Florida Gators currently have two defensive backs, Jaddarius Perkins and Diwun Black, who came from the Mississippi-based program. West Virginia DB Jackie Matthews was an All-American in JUCO at MCGGG before choosing the Mountaineers.
“We’ve got really good history there, and DeCarlos knows that too,” Coach Wright added. “He’s seen those bigger corners that we’ve had, those bigger DBs. He was a fan of ours his junior and senior year in high school and he watched Jaddarius and Diwun get recruited and what their options were with their size. He knew he struggled a little bit at quarterback and I think he just saw where his biggest upside was. That’s where his future was, is playing somewhere on the perimeter.”
Nicholson sure does possess SEC size, too. Or “bigger than SEC size” as his head coach would describe. He’s a legit 6-foot-4 with impressive length and speed. Soon to be playing in the toughest conference in college football, Nicholson could be a matchup nightmare for the opposing team’s tallest pass-catcher.
“I think every SEC team has a big, go-to guy,” Coach Wright added. “Every SEC team is going to have that 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-5 outside guy that’s got length, the ability to go up and get it in a one-on-one situation. I think what (Nicholson) provides is somebody that can match up with that guy, with the other SEC team, whoever that person is in a man-to-man situation.”
The MGCCC coaching staff toyed with the idea of maybe moving Nicholson to wide receiver, but ultimately landed on him playing defensive back. Nicholson has just two games of cornerback under his belt in 2021, recording two tackles (one for a loss) and three pass breakups so far.
Unfortunately, that means there isn’t much tape on him playing cornerback yet, but there is plenty of film where he’s at quarterback. It might seem counterproductive to watch and try to learn anything about Nicholson from his time at QB, but you get an excellent glimpse into just how athletic he truly is and how he thinks as a quarterback.
“Even though there’s not a ton of film at DB, there’s a ton of film as him as an athlete,” Coach Wright said. “DeCarlos probably looks at cornerback through a different lens. He knows what quarterbacks are thinking when they see him out there on an island. He knows what they’re thinking when they see him rolled up in Cover 2. He just kind of has a unique perspective on how to play that position as well as being just really big and really fast.”
If you want a better idea of how highly Nicholson is viewed around his league, keep in mind that he was named a 1st Team Preseason JUCO All-American cornerback by JCGridiron before ever playing a snap at DB.
With that type of potential combined with clear athleticism, he’ll be an excellent addition to Kentucky’s already impressive 2022 recruiting class.