Derek Nicholson never planned to get into coaching. But when he had another knee injury early in his NFL career, the Florida State standout began coaching at the high school level. And Nicholson’s coaching journey began, taking him to Akron (2013), Louisville (2014), Alcorn State (2015) and Southern Miss (2016-19) before joining Scott Satterfield’s staff at Louisville.
At FSU from 2005-08, Nicholson had 207 tackles, 25.5 TFL, three sacks and two defensive touchdowns. He was part of teams that won an ACC title in 2005 and finished with a 9-4 mark and a bowl win over Wisconsin in 2008.
Nicholson sat down with the Osceola’s Bob Ferrante and Tom Block of the “Front Row Noles” show this week to discuss his career, Louisville and FSU. A shorter version of the interview ran on Front Row Noles, while this Q&A features additional comments.
When did you decide that coaching was what you wanted to pursue?
Nicholson: When I had another significant knee injury and attempted to continue my football career playing professionally. I started off with the Atlanta Falcons. I had another knee injury to the same knee I hurt at Florida State my sophomore year. I was forced to retire. And so I got into coaching high school football in 2011 in North Carolina, near my hometown in Greensboro, North Carolina. So I started there coaching high school for a year. And I found a passion and a love for helping kids and still get that sense of that competitive drive and fire as well. And then actually, the next year moved on to Tallahassee, I was wanting to see if I can get on as a graduate assistant with Jimbo (Fisher) when he was at the helm. And I ended up coaching high school football. And then (in 2013) I got my first stint coaching in college with Terry Bowden and University of Akron with Chuck Amato being the defensive coordinator, who was my linebackers coach my last two years at Florida State.
How did coaches like Bobby Bowden, Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato help shape you as a person? And do you reflect on what they taught as you now coach?
Nicholson: It’s crazy how it works out. It’s crazy how God has his hands on you. I didn’t foresee myself being a football coach. It’s not something that I wanted to do or thought that was something that God was leading me to. I wanted to be a football player, play 10 years, build a church, retire my mom and dad, live happily ever after. It’s crazy it’s not always your plan that works out as planned. It’s the plan that God has for you. A statement that Bobby Bowden said to me on a Friday before a game resonated with me and it still does. And I say it to our guys. He said, ‘One day everybody in his room is going to die. And I want everybody in this room, all you men, all you players and coaches to be up there with me. And that’s in heaven.’ When he said that it was a ‘wow’ statement, how much that statement impacted me. I remember that statement very, very vividly. And how me, transitioning in this profession, how I can hear that statement ringing in my own head. I can still hear the voice of Coach B and how that influenced me to influence other young people because at the end of the day, I don’t think the good Lord is going to say, ‘Well you won the Sugar Bowl or the Super Bowl. Come on in.’ He is going to say, ‘What did you do with the talents and gifts that I gave you?’ And so that resonated with me back in those days when I was playing, especially with Bobby. It is one of the main reasons why I got into coaching, to help young people.
Now that you’ve seen coaching from this side, how do you look back at why coaches did something or said something?
Nicholson: I get it. Yeah, it comes full circle. It makes so much sense. Looking at it from this opposite coaching view you get it now. You get why coaches like Chuck Amato, Kevin Steele and Mickey Andrews and all the coaches that I’ve been blessed to play for were so hard, so hard on you. And wanted you to be great at the little things, the details. You realize it now looking back at it. At the time, you’re like, ‘Why does Mickey got to cuss me out for the 1,000th time. Why? Why I got to get cussed out every day? But you realize it now, being in this position. Every day you never know when it’s that critical play that can be the difference in the whole ballgame. Especially when it comes to football. You’re working with different parts and pieces. It’s a true team sport. So you got to be detailed and meticulous. And you see why those men were the way they were especially when we got on the football field.
You are a Winston-Salem guy and coach Satterfield was at Appalachian State. Did you guys know each other or meet at some point?
Nicholson: I knew a lot of the same people coach Satterfield knew. He actually recruited me when I was at Mount Tabor (High School). He was at Appalachian State. So I remember him. I followed his success and followed his career from afar. I didn’t know him personally. Things just happened. I know we have a lot of North Carolinians on the staff. A lot of people that they knew, I know a lot of same people. A lot of things in common, not just with coach Satt but a lot of other coaches on this staff.
You’ve had the chance to watch a lot of FSU on film. What are your thoughts on the Seminoles’ offense?
Nicholson: Jordan Travis is a very dynamic quarterback. He can throw it, he can run it. I think he’s intelligent. He makes good decisions with the football. He has a lot of dynamic playmakers. Multiple guys in the running back position. Multiple guys at the receiver position. And their offensive line in particular, the last few games, has really, really, really impressed me. They’re a lot better unit than they were a year ago. Just watch the tape. They’re going to be excited to come up here and play. I know several of those coaches. They’re bright, they’re smart, they’re innovative. I know they’re going to have a good game plan for us. Both teams need a victory desperately and so we’ll see what happens.
Can you see Florida State’s identity develop in these last three games with Travis where they want to run and use what he can do as a passer and runner?
Nicholson: No doubt. They found themselves in the second half of the Jacksonville State game. I think he gives their team a little bit more juice. I think they believe in him, you can tell by the way the defense and special teams units are playing. They’re playing at a higher level than they were at the beginning of the year. I think he brings a different element than maybe some of the other quarterbacks with being able to beat you with his arm and his legs. When you draw up the right play and it doesn’t work, he can make something happen. They got a lot of great runners, but he may be the most dynamic person with the ball in his hand. That’s scary at the quarterback position — a guy that can beat you with his arm as well as his legs. And then when you got a coaching staff that’s innovative like coach Norvell, they present a lot of challenges for us. The quarterback has given him a spark.
You have been around this league all your life. How is the quality of coaching in the ACC improved in recent years?
Nicholson: The ACC right now is really good. The parity from top down is better. It’s probably as good as it’s been for a while. The football is really good from top down. The main reason why is some of the coaches, the head coaches and the coaching staffs in this conference. Some of the best in the country. It’s very competitive with a lot of other conferences. I’m going to be biased and say it’s the best. Me growing up in ACC country, playing at an ACC school and now coaching, being back in the ACC, I’m a little biased in saying this is the best conference in football. But I truly believe that. I really do.
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