COLUMBIA — Recruiting is, at best, a gamble.
No one really knows if the hype surrounding a young Jadeveon Clowney in high school will actually translate into a college All-American and first-round NFL draft pick. That is determined on the field on autumn Saturdays.
Yet it’s no surprise that South Carolina coach Will Muschamp had no hesitation about throwing a true freshman into the right tackle vacancy created by Dylan Wonnum’s ankle injury. The traits they noticed watching Jaylen Nichols in high school are the same he’s displaying now.
“You don’t ever know about contributing immediately till you get them here, but just very athletic, very powerful for a big guy,” Muschamp said of the 6-5, 320 pound offensive lineman. “Gets his hands on you, can move people and is athletic enough to block the edge in our league.”
Nichols was doing all that as a two-way lineman at Charlotte’s Myers Park High, which may have led to a drop in his recruiting rankings. Perhaps no one knew at which position to peg him — offensive or defensive tackle — so he was merely the No. 43 prospect.
Not in the nation. In North Carolina.
“He has good feet, very, very powerful punch,” USC linebacker Ernest Jones said. “If he gets a hold of you, it’s kind of wrapped.”
He arrived in spring but was at best going to be the seventh guy on the offensive line, probably headed for a redshirt year. But they always told him to be ready, to keep going all-out in practice, because no one ever knows when lightning might strike.
As it did with Wonnum, who as a true freshman last year took over as the starting right tackle in midseason. When Wonnum nearly broke his ankle in the Gamecocks’ 34-14 loss to Missouri on Sept. 21, it was Nichols’ time to step up.
“He’s realizing he has to grow up and that’s what we need from him,” said Jovaughn Gwyn, who lines up beside Nichols at right guard. “That he’s not a freshman no more, he’s a freshman that’s playing.”
Nichols played well in his debut against Kentucky two weeks ago and will start again at No. 3 Georgia on Saturday.
Every college athlete thinks they are ready to play immediately, but few actually are. Even fewer get the opportunity.
Nichols checked all three boxes. He thought he was ready, he proved he was ready and he is now starting as a freshman.
“He handles tough coaching, which obviously at that position you’ve got to be able to manage and handle, and I think a lot of that goes back to maturity,” Muschamp said. “A lot of times, playing as a freshman, you need to have an opportunity, you need to have ability, but so much of it, to me, goes into how mature you are and how you handle it, ’cause, generally, young players always hit the wall at some point.
“He’s been a guy that’s continued to work and progress and has put himself in a position to be a productive player for us.”
That wall could come against the Bulldogs, whose defense ranks among the top 10 nationally in multiple categories (points allowed, rushing defense, total defense, tackles for loss). It could come if Wonnum returns, wanting his old spot back. Or it could never come.
Nichols may have created his own wall at right tackle that no one can get through.