James Gayle trumpeted fellow Hokies defensive end Dadi Nicolas as a potential breakout player before the season. So he was glad to see the sophomore dominate against Pitt, finishing with a career-high three sacks, the first Tech player to do so in six years.
“If Dadi would have had six sacks, I wouldn’t have been surprised that day,” Gayle said. “He still has stuff to work on, like everybody. Once he gets his technique together, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC. Even though he is right now.”
Nicolas, who spoke to the media for the first time Tuesday, enjoyed every second of his breakout game, one in which he alternated between his usual reserve defensive end spot and a new outside linebacker position with no pass coverage responsibilities that defensive coordinator Bud Foster cooked up specifically for the Panthers.
The 6-foot-3, 228-pound Nicolas went after the quarterback all day, part of a Virginia Tech defensive effort that produced eight sacks, its most since 2006.
“It was one of the funnest games I’ve played since I’ve been here,” said Nicolas, who was named CBSSports.com’s Defensive Player of the Week.
For Nicolas, it was a few years in the making. The redshirt sophomore, who came from the Atlantic High pipeline in Delray Beach, Fla., is relatively inexperienced as a football player.
Born in Haiti, he moved to the United States when he was about three months old. After going through an adoption process, he went by Wedley Estime until changing back to his given name prior to coming to Tech. He played some Little League football but was thought of more as a basketball player growing up. He eventually played football in high school, but only his senior year. Still, he got noticed. His raw athleticism was apparent to anyone who watched.
Hokies defensive line coach Charley Wiles, who has recruited Atlantic High for years with great success, took note. Tech has pulled receiver David Clowney, cornerback Brandon Flowers, cornerback Jayron Hosley and quarterback Mark Leal over the years from the talent-rich school, which is a little less than an hour north of Miami.
Wiles was recruiting two players from the school for the 2011 class — Nicolas (then going by Estime) and defensive tackle Luther Maddy. Until they missed late on a different recruit, the Hokies weren’t sure whether they’d be able to take both. Nicolas was the higher ranked of the two, although neither were particularly touted by the recruiting services.
“It’s just another story in recruiting how there’s no real science,” Wiles said. “You’ve got to go on guys that you know in the business, that you trust in the business, that have been around them on an everyday basis for two years. What kind of people they are. What kind of work ethic. So ultimately that’s what we did, and [the Atlantic coaches] were exactly right.”
Nicolas briefly committed to Minnesota and had interest from Kansas, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Western Michigan. When Virginia Tech entered the picture, however, it got Nicolas’ coach’s attention. It helped that Nicolas had heard good things from Atlantic players who had gone to Blacksburg.
“A couple big homies from my city came here and prospered and went to the next level,” Nicolas said. “They said they treated them right here. And I saw what Virginia Tech had to offer and I loved the campus and the environment, so it was the right fit.”
It took him a while to get acclimated to the college game, although he thought he would thrive from the start.
“As a football player, that should be your attitude, you know?” Nicolas said. “I mean, what type of football player would you be or what kind of athlete period [if you didn't]? You’ve got to be competitive. So off rip, I didn’t care who was here. It didn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to win. But that’s not how it worked out.”
He needed time to develop and redshirted in 2011. That growth was stunted briefly after he was arrested for stealing a bike in June of 2012. (He politely declined to talk about it Tuesday, saying, “I’m past that.”) He was suspended from the team for most of the summer but reinstated early in the season.
Still, he missed a lot of time. Wiles said last fall it was probably like the coaches were “speaking Chinese” to him once he returned to the meeting room. Hopes were low that Nicolas would contribute.
But he did whenever he got on the field. He ended up making 17 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks, making the most of limited playing time. His athleticism jumped out on the field. When a Rutgers receiver broke free on a screen pass in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Nicolas ran him down 40 yards down the field.
Wiles said Nicolas’ progression in the offseason was a major factor in motivating J.R. Collins into turning his career around. Nicolas can play both defensive end spots, so he adds some versatility to the line. Still, it’s the sophomore’s athleticism that Wiles continues to rave about.
“He was fast on [high school] film, but he’s faster now,” Wiles said. “He’s faster now than he was when he got here. He’s got a heavy shoulder too, man. When he hits you, now, you’ve been hit. …
“And I’ve told him, I think the kid’s got a chance to be drafted high, just looking at the raw ability. Now he’s starting to really turn into a football player.”
Nicolas is listed as 224 pounds but plays around 228-230. That’s 30 pounds heavier than when he arrived at Tech.
“When I first met him, he told me he was 210,” Wiles said. “That joker was 190, 193, I guarantee you. And when he got here, I think he was 200. And now he’s 230. So he’s put on 30 pounds of good weight.
“If we can get him to 250, that would be fantastic. He’s 225, 230 right now and he plays 250 now. If he gets 250, he’s going to play 270. When he puts his hands on you, he’s just a heavy-handed guy.”
The Hokies are trying to find out ways to use him. Nicolas has 19 tackles, five tackles for a loss, four sacks and 10 quarterback hurries this year, again in limited playing time. Collins and Gayle are the starters, although Nicolas spells both of them.
Wiles doesn’t know if the package Virginia Tech used specifically against Pitt will be more than a one-time thing, but he likes the idea of Gayle, Collins and Nicolas in the game at the same time.
“Anybody would want to do that,” Wiles said. “Now, can we? I don’t know. But we’ve got to figure out ways to get those three dynamic athletes on the field together.”
“It’s going to be a long day for any quarterback if the coaches are able to find a way for all three of us to be on the field at the same time,’ Gayle said.
Here are a few more quick notes and quotes from post-practice interviews Tuesday …
– Pitt coach Paul Chryst questioned the hit Hokies safety Kyshoen Jarrett put on Panthers receiver Devin Street late in Saturday’s game. The officials didn’t throw a flag and the ACC deemed the hit legal afterward, saying Jarrett’s hit was on the shoulder and Street, having taken several steps, was not a defenseless player. Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray saw it the same way.
“I didn’t think Kyshoen was targeting,” Gray said. “I thought he was on the shoulder pad and lower. That was a legal hit. I see the league sees it that way. It’s still football, but we want to do it with a respect for the game. If a guy is a defenseless guy, we don’t ever want to target above the shoulder pads or anything like that.”
Gray said he was pleased that the officials didn’t simply err on the side of caution and throw a flag because it was a big hit.
“That’s the human nature,” Gray said. “The, ‘ooh,’ you hear the crowd. Officials are human. They may get caught up in, ‘That was a vicious hit. Was that targeting?’ But I’m glad no one got over on it. And like I said, it was just a good, clean play.”
– Running backs coach Shane Beamer said the Hokies have done some self-scouting this week, going back through every offensive play this year, trying to see what worked and what didn’t, then set a plan for what to do going forward.
“What’s been good for us? What hasn’t been good for us? Why is something successful? Why is something not successful? Who are our play-makers?” Shane said. “It’s kind of an inventory of where we are as an offense.”
Beamer didn’t get into many specifics but said the problems mostly stemmed from inconsistency across the board.
– Virginia Tech is one of the few teams in the country that hasn’t had a bye week until now. Normally a team wouldn’t want to take a break when it is on a six-game winning streak, but …
“We needed it, from a mental standpoint, from a physical standpoint,” Beamer said. “We were watching film from Alabama yesterday, and that game seems like forever ago. We’re 6-1, but it’s been a long seven weeks. … Especially on the offensive line, we needed it from a physical standpoint.”
– A couple of websites have put out their midseason All-America teams. Defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins got a second-team mention by CBSSports.com. Freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson made ESPN’s midseason All-America team.