SPRINGDALE, Ark. — When Isaiah Nichols arrived at Springdale High School in 2015, it quickly became obvious he had the tools to become a special talent on the football field. This was apparent despite the fact Nichols had never played football.
He developed a love for the sport growing up in Arkansas — first in Warren and later in Little Rock before moving to Springdale. It was in the Northwest Arkansas town of roughly 70,000 people he first put on a helmet and shoulder pads to play competitively.
Once he did, his size caught the attention of Springdale coach Zak Clark. Nichols was about 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds at the time, and Clark began letting him know he could one day play at the Division I level.
“When he shows up at 220, 225 and he’s never lifted a weight, you know there’s potential,” Springdale Clark told SEC Country.
“The way he could move and he was always flexible. You could tell from the first time he did a squat he had hip flexibility and watching him run around you could just tell he had that potential. I didn’t know exactly how good he could be, but certainly it didn’t take an expert to know he could potentially be pretty special.”
Two years later, Nichols is proving Clark’s assertion correct. He’s now a 6-foot-4, 272-pound defensive lineman with scholarship offers from 12 FBS programs. Power 5 schools Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Mississippi State and Missouri are among them.
The reality that Nichols was becoming the player Clark insisted he could be came when he received his first offer, from Arkansas State in late January.
“My junior year, I felt like I had a decent season and I knew I was headed places,” Nichols said. “But once I got that first offer I sat back and thought about it … ‘You have people wanting to give you a scholarship to come play for them.’ That’s when I knew if I keep my grades up and keep doing what I’m doing right, I’m going to be a Division I athlete. That’s the dream.”
All about the family
Nichols and his family moved from Warren to Little Rock when he was a 10-year-old. He now considers Little Rock his hometown. The family made the initial move in large part to be closer to the family of his father, Vance.
The move to Springdale was for similar reasons. It’s where the family of his mother, Susan, resides. Susan’s father, Paul Spears, had a stroke in recent years. The effects left his grandmother, Carol Spears, to take care of him. After Carol had a heart attack in 2014, Isaiah’s family decided it was time to move to Northwest Arkansas.
“My mom, since she was 18, spent a lot of time away from her hometown,” Nichols said. “She graduated high school here and all my mom’s side of the family is here, so it was just a good opportunity for her to come spend time with her family and be closer to them.”
The move worked out in countless ways for Isaiah. He’s surrounded by family, has built strong friendships and is realizing a dream on the football field.
“I’ve loved it here,” Nichols said. “It’s changed my life. Before, I used to stress about how I’m going to pay for college and stuff. But it’s nothing to worry about now, because I’ve gotten to do something I love and other people recognize how good I’ve gotten and how much I love football. There’s nothing better. I love it here.”
Finding his position, and a key injury
Though Nichols’ coaches knew he had the potential to thrive on the field, it wasn’t obvious which position he would fit best.
He first played linebacker. It was a match for his athleticism and size during spring practice in 2015, and yet he didn’t immediately thrive.
“We’d laugh because it was almost like he’s sitting in the middle of the road and the cars are going by from both directions,” Clark said. “But you could still tell he could play.”
A move to defensive end came ahead of Nichols’ sophomore season. Coaches kept things basic for him, essentially telling him to go sack the quarterback.
It was obvious in fall camp he could be a contributor right away for the varsity team. But Clark cautioned against throwing him into a highly competitive game right way as Springdale was facing always-stout Greenwood (Ark.) in its opener.
So, Nichols was put in a junior varsity game to begin the season. He ended up breaking a forearm in the game and was sidelined for several weeks. Though not obvious at the time, the injury might have been a blessing. He used the time on the sidelines to catch up on the mental aspects of the game.
“When he got hurt, he spent a lot of time watching and learning football,” Clark said. “Not a lot of guys do that. It’s hard, especially as a young kid, when you’re hurt and you just kind of feel sorry for yourself. It’s tough. But he really did use that time to get ready, study the game and close the gap mentally.
“When he came back, it was immediate. We were not a very good defensive football team at all that year until he came back. Then, we had our three or four best games. I don’t think that was a coincidence.”
Nichols will enter his senior season primarily playing defensive tackle. That’s where Springdale needs him. At the next level, he could play any spot on a defensive front.
A future in the SEC?
Nichols is becoming likely to one day play in the SEC. That’s the conference he grew up watching as he idolized former Razorbacks including Chris Smith and Trey Flowers.
His SEC offers to this point are from Mississippi State and Missouri with growing interest from Arkansas. He also visited Alabama for the Crimson Tide’s junior day in February. He currently has Arkansas and Mizzou at the top of his list.
“Everywhere you go in the SEC is going to have good facilities,” Nichols said. “But when I met the coaches at Missouri, and same with Arkansas, they were really genuine people. When they recognize your hard work, it definitely feels rewarding.”
Above all else, Nichols will be thankful for the opportunity wherever he ends up. It was a bit more than two years ago he was a kid with a dream, but no chance to play the game he’d grown to love.
“Getting offers and having other people see the hard work that I’ve put into my craft, it just makes me feel like everything is all worthwhile,” Nichols said. “It’s like a dream come true being recruited how I am now.”