When South Carolina’s football team was working on some team offensive prep in its first 2019 spring practice, one jersey number caught a little attention if one knew where to look.
That would be the big No. 52 of Jaylen Nichols sauntering out to the right tackle spot with the second team.
This matters because Nichols is only a true freshman, at the most challenging position for young players to play, finding his way out with the second team for his first college practice. Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp made the point there’s a long way to go between early practices and whatever he might do in his career, but it also says something he can find that spot so quickly.
“He’s a guy that just, movement skills-wise for a big man, he’s 300-plus … He’s got some good punching power and he’s got really good feet,” Muschamp said. “He can play on the perimeter. He can play on the edge for us at tackle. That’s something that’s hard to find, especially somebody that big.”
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Nichols was someone Muschamp quickly brought up as a freshman who had impressed in the first three practices.
The 6-foot-4, 313-pounder was a two-way player in high school. There were some rumblings he might see a future on defense, but ultimately he found his spot with Eric Wolford’s offensive line.
And the coach saw one key factor that’s helped Nichols early.
“The one thing about him is, I’ll always evaluate the parents.” Wolford said. “One thing you figured our real quick is their discipline. They believe in hard work. They believe in doing things the right way. When they talk about being here a 1 o’clock, they’re going to be here at 12:30. That just the way he was raised.
“He started off on the right foot here. He’s at meetings on time. He’s in his playbook. He’s studying plays. He listens, he writes down, he takes notes.”
The coach didn’t want to shortchange the skillset, which included a 30-inch vertical jump on a bad hamstring at 300-plus pounds. He noted explosiveness metrics like that are good future indicators. He was a three-star recruit and the No. 84 offensive tackle in the 247 composite rankings for the 2019 class.
Nichols comes in at a spot where USC is simultaneously losing some key pieces but also has a pair of potential anchors on both sides.
Sadarius Hutcherson is a junior who just moved from guard to left tackle. Dylan Wonnum broke into the lineup at right tackle last season and shows no signs of doing anything but starting the next two or three years. That marks a quick change for a roster that lost its top three opening-day tackles from last season.
Behind Hutcherson and Wonnum, there isn’t much in the way of proven tackles. There could be an opportunity, maybe for a first-year player like Nichols if he comes along well.
But as Muschamp pointed out, there’s still a long way to go, and Nichols, four practices in, is picking up the finer points of a challenging position.
“He’s starting to learn that it’s a lot different than high school,” Wolford said. “Speed of the game. But he’s got some natural tools, physical traits. He’s got some ability. It’s kind of going fast for him at times, but he competes. He’s got to learn some finer details of blocking.
“It looks like he’s going to have a chance to be a good player for us.”