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Oct. 23, 2013

By Melissa Dudek

Demetrious Nicholson has always played bigger than his 5-11, 185-pound frame. The junior has been an impact player in the ACC since becoming the first true freshman cornerback at Virginia to start a season-opening game at the position since Kevin Cook in 1986. Since that first game in 2011, Nicholson has played nearly every defensive down for the Cavaliers until an injury against Ball State sidetracked him.

Along the way Nicholson earned second team Freshman All-America accolades his first year and honorable mention All-ACC honors last season when he tied for the conference lead in pass breakups. In high school, Nicholson was named the 2010 Gatorade Player of the Year for Virginia and the No. 2 recruit in the state after a stellar prep career at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach.

But playing beyond his size began well before high school and college. Nicholson got his first taste of playing with the “big boys” when he was four years old and snuck his way into flag football, competing in a league with five and six year olds.

“Coach let me play, even though I was only four,” Nicholson said. “I always played football around my neighborhood and when I went out there to be part of an organization, seeing the jerseys and seeing the actual team, it blew my mind.”

Nicholson and his cousin, Randy, played catch in the big grass field next to his apartment complex as well as two-hand-touch pick-up games in the field or out in the street with the other kids in the neighborhood. However, it took a few years before Nicholson realized that football was going to be an important part of his future.

“My first two years, I was just a little guy running around like every other little kid,” Nicholson said. “Then as I got older, I started progressing fast. I was still in flag football when they started giving me the ball and no one on the defense could grab my flag. I was making guys miss and I was running away from other kids out there. When I started scoring touchdowns, I knew I was good at football and that I could do it.”

Nicholson was a two-way star at Bayside High, earning first team all-district honors at both wide receiver and defensive back, but when it came time to market himself as a potential recruit, he attended camps solely as a defensive back.

“I knew that was what I wanted to play and that was what I was primarily focused on,” Nicholson said. “I didn’t want to be on offense and get knocked down by bigger guys. I wanted to be the guy who knocked someone down. I wasn’t that big of a player, so I knew I didn’t want to be getting hit by big players and when I started going to camps. I was catching interceptions, so I really embraced being a defensive back.”

After arriving at Virginia for his first preseason camp in 2011, Nicholson found a mentor on the defense that helped him earn the spot in the starting lineup.

“I went under Chase Minnifield’s wing and watched what he did, I realized the work it takes to be a college football player,” Nicholson said. “He was working out three times a day sometimes and he would drag me along to each workout. For one workout, we would go out on the field and work technique. He had his camera out there recording himself and his footwork and then would go back and study it. Later, we would go to the stadium and run steps. Then maybe later that night, we would go for a run around Charlottesville.”

A couple of weeks before the 2011 season opener, Nicholson started taking reps almost exclusively with the first team, heralding his destiny to be a starter.

“Coach London told me if I could pick up and learn my assignments I would be fine,” Nicholson said. “Leading up to the game, I was excited, kind of anxious and a little nervous. Running out of the tunnel that day and seeing the crowd, it was almost like a dream. I caught an interception in that game and that night when I thought about it, I was like `What did I just do? What just happened?’ It felt like I was dreaming.”

It wasn’t a dream. Nicholson did indeed pick off a pass from William & Mary quarterback Brent Caprio, running it back for 31 yards to the 13-yard line, setting up a third-quarter Virginia touchdown.

“We were doing this defense called `bullets’. One of the safeties was blitzing, so I knew the ball would come out fast,” Nicholson recalled. “It was third and eight and Coach West had told us all week that he [the receiver] was going to run to the stakes to try and get the first down. I kind of set on the stakes and I glanced in at the quarterback under pressure. I knew he wanted to throw it and he had to throw it fast because they were coming after him. I jumped the route and caught it and that was that.”

The William & Mary interception was his first of two during his rookie campaign. Despite having 15 pass-breakups last year, Nicholson did not have a single interception his sophomore season, a stat that truly haunted him.

“Coach told me and instilled in my head all summer to forget the pass breakups because we need interceptions,” Nicholson said. “Pass breakups are big plays, but you definitely want your offense to get the ball back and so you want to get a turnover. It’s a mindset about going after the ball whenever it is in the air.”

Three weeks ago against Pitt, the drought officially came to an end.

“[Pitt] ran a five-yard in-route and we were in the perfect defense where I was sitting inside,” Nicholson recalled. “My assignment is that I can’t allow anybody inside and he tried to run inside, so it gave me the opportunity to just go and drive on the route and I caught the interception. Coach Tenuta called a great defense for me and it just worked out.”

Nicholson wasn’t the only one excited about that picked off pass.

“My mom comes to all of the home games, but for road games, she always throws a little party, usually at the house, and invites people over and decorates the place all orange and blue,” Nicholson said. “That week, though, they were all at a Buffalo Wild Wings. They all started cheering, my mom, my cousin and everybody. They were all clapping and yelling and people were looking at them like they were crazy. It was about eight of them there and it got really loud.”

His mother, Elizabeth, as well as his great-grandmother, Nita Superales, had always been very supportive of Nicholson.

“I would like to thank my mom and my great grandmother for raising me,” Nicholson said. “I just want to thank my family, period, for just being there for me and being supportive of me. My mom and I have a really good friendship as well as her being a mother to me. My great grandmother passed two years ago, but I still love and thank her for everything.”

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