Vivlamore reporting from Flowery Branch.
FLOWERY BRANCH — Stephen Nicholas is having fun again – so much so his teammates have taken to call him “Pic-Nic.”
It wasn’t long ago the Falcons linebacker described himself as heartbroken over missing the final seven games last season, save for a few plays in one, with turf toe. That included the team’s January playoff loss that ran the current regime’s postseason record to 0-3.
Nicholas had surgery that required five months for a full recovery. At times following the procedure he used a scooter for his right leg just to be mobile. He missed all the Organized Team Activities and minicamps while the team installed the defensive scheme. He was cleared to return prior to the start of training camp.
He’s back – and it’s quite evident.
“Being down that long, I’m excited to be back and I feel blessed,” Nicholas said. “It’s a joy every day. You see a little bit of the excitement.”
Nicholas’ exuberance is costing fellow linebacker and training camp roommate Sean Weatherspoon sleep.
“I like to sleep to the last minute,” Weatherspoon said. “Every morning, he’s knocking at the door. … He’s so upbeat.”
These days Nicholas is one of the players who can be found in the middle of the pre-practice huddle, inspiring teammates for the work ahead. It’s another glimpse into the personality of the player who could be considered the unsung leader of the defensive unit.
“He loves his craft and he’s young at heart,” linebackers coach Glenn Pires said. “He’s young at heart even though he’s been in the league six years. He runs around like he’s a rookie. He has a lot of energy. He enjoys the game and he really looks forward to everything, in meetings, in practice.”
Nicholas is no rookie. He is entering his sixth season. He was limited to 10 games last season, also missing two early-season games with a calf injury. He finished with just 32 tackles after recording 82 and 87 the previous two seasons.
As the Falcons move on after the loss of last season’s leading tackler Curtis Lofton, Nicholas will be a key part of the defense for his ability to play all three downs. According to Pires, Nicholas has the speed and ability to cover tight ends and running backs on pass routes, which is an important element of the scheme. Also, speed will come into play on blitz packages.
Nicholas’ assets will be tested on third down – a point of emphasis for the Falcons with their defensive changes. Last season the Falcons were tied for the third-worst success rate, with the Vikings, on third downs in the NFL. They allowed the opposition to covert a staggering 44 percent (93-of-211 chances) of their attempts. Only the Chargers (49 percent) and the Colts (45 percent) were worse.
Pires said if there is a difference in the new scheme, it will be what the Falcons do on third down.
While his exuberance is showing on the training camp practice field, Nicholas said he is not losing sight of the ultimate goal. There is unfinished business with that 0-3 postseason record gnawing at him and his teammates.
“That is a hurdle we need to get over,” Nicholas said. “We need to finish. That’s definitely [the feeling] in the locker room.”
The team goal of changing the franchise’s recent postseason failures is paramount. While the Pro bowl may a personal goal this season Nicholas, like many of his teammates, is not sharing. There are bigger issues.
“My goals are what they are,” Nicholas said. “If we proceed to get the team goals, I’ll know I accomplished my goals. I’m shooting for the team goals first. If we do everything right and get to where we need to be, at the end of the day, my goal is going to be right in there.”
- Chris Vivlamore
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