It’s always fun to watch a high school football player pursue a career school record; usually late in his junior year or some time as a senior. And then there is Diontae Nicholson, who will only be adding to his marks during that time.
Nottingham High’s amazing sophomore running back recently finished his second varsity season as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 2,677 yards, and the all-time leader in touchdowns with 29. Anthony Douglas, a 2000 graduate, had the yardage record with 2,490, and 2014 grad Jameel Bailey had the TD mark with 26.
This past season, behind an outstanding offensive line, Nicholson rushed for 1,785 yards and 21 touchdowns in helping the Northstars to an 8-2 record and the No. 1 seed in the Central Jersey Group IV playoffs. He broke the rushing mark with an 80-yard run against Freehold Boro in the Stars’ high-scoring playoff loss.
Despite all his accomplishments, Nicholson won’t sing self praises.
“I still have to humble myself,” he said. “I’m proud of myself but I feel like I can still do more. This is not what I’m settling for. There’s more to come, that’s what I’m looking for.”
In fact, Nicholson did not think he did enough this season.
“I feel like I did a good job, but I also feel like I could have done more to help my team,” he said. “Throughout the season I had a difficult time picking a better hole to score out of. Sometimes I would run into a stuffed hole and try to make something out of the run. When I go back and watch the film, it’s like ‘I should have gone to this hole’ or ‘I should have made a better cut.’”
Whatever he did not do, couldn’t compare to what he did. Nicholson was nearly a one-man offensive show on numerous occasions. He had 284 carries, while the rest of the team combined for 121. The Stars had 71 passing attempts, which put their total play count at 476. That meant that Diontae had 59.7 percent of Nottingham’s total touches for the season.
And he only stands 5-foot-7, 170 pounds.
“He worked very hard in his conditioning and it paid off,” coach Jon Adams said. “He showed right from the beginning that he could carry the load and we went with him. We just felt as the season progressed he kept getting better and better and stronger and stronger. As his ball security got better, we continued to gain confidence in him.”
Nicholson excelled late in games on some of his busiest nights. He scored the game-winning TD with time running down at Lawrence on a night where he had 43 carries. Against Steinert had had 31 carries and scored the game-winning touchdown the first play of overtime. His season low was 103 yards against the Spartans, but he had it when it counted with a 25-yard run.
“The Spartans did a tremendous job defensively,” Adams said. “It was a field position battle, old school football game. We’re in overtime, we need a big play and the best player in the league (Jordan Morrison) is unblocked and can’t tackle him. He makes a move, makes the corner miss, nobody blocked the safety; he made him miss, and he’s in the endzone. And we’re the winners of the Battle of Klockner Road. He really just wore teams down as the game went on.”
One thing that allowed him so many carries is that Nicholson did not play defense and was only on one special team. But he is not unfamiliar with the defensive side of the ball.
Due to having a July birthday, he began Pop Warner at age 4. He moved to the Hamilton Football League at age 7 and stayed for five years. During that time, Nicholson never ran the ball.
“He was kind of chunky as a kid,” Adams said with a playful laugh. “He wasn’t always the well-built young man you see now.”
Nicholson took a more polite approach to his build, saying, “I was always bigger and had more weight on me. So as a kid I played defensive line and some center.”
He began playing for the Hamilton Revolution at age 12 and was finally moved to the backfield, which makes it more extraordinary to realize he became Nottingham’s all-time rushing leader in just his fourth year of playing the position.
“It was literally two years before high school that I started,” he said. “My coaches were always telling me I was aggressive. I knew I was getting thinner, I wasn’t going to be able to get on the line, so where would I fit? Running back. You have to be aggressive to play running back.”
When he arrived at Nottingham last year, Adams began raving about Nicholson in the preseason, warning everyone about “this freshman I have.” The raves never stopped.
In his first year, alternating with Jon Jacobs and several other players, Nicholson ran for 875 yards and eight touchdowns. He missed a game-and-a-half with an ankle injury or likely would have cracked 1,000.
“We played him on varsity last year because he was physically mature enough, and he exceeded our expectations,” Adams said. “Even as a freshman, he stood toe to toe in there and proved he could run.”
Nicholson knew he would be called on frequently this year and knew he would have to spend the summer getting ready.
“Coach told me I was going to have to prepare my body for that amount of carries,” he said. “I had to do more conditioning, more hard work during the off-time, and be in the weight room. I knew in the long run it would pay off. And Nottingham practices are the best in the summer. You gotta do it with the sun beating and the dust flying.”
In watching Nicholson for two years, Adams compared him to two of the Stars great running backs. He has the stamina of Kendrick Williams, who also carried the ball frequently, and is putting up stats reminiscent to 1994 grad Dante Coleman, who played for Nottingham’s first state playoff team in 1993.
“I never had a freshman running back on varsity, and Dante is the only back I can compare him to as sophomores,” the coach said. “Dante didn’t play much in the first three games his sophomore year, he went out and ran for 200 yards against West Windsor South and never stopped running for 200 after that. Dante was more of a slasher, Diontae can slash and run for power.
“That’s what makes him a great back. Now he’s seeing the cutbacks. Early in the season we’d point it out in our endzone camera and he’d say ‘Coach, I can’t believe I missed that.’ Coach (Shaquille) Sanderson did a great job coaching him up and doing a lot of drill work on that very thing.”
Nicholson feels because of his small stature; most people figure he’s more of a speed guy. He thinks otherwise.
“I think I’m more of a power runner,” he said. “I don’t really have the speed yet. I’m trying to work on that now.”
He may be working on a few other things next year. With Nottingham graduating several key players on defense, Adams feels Nicholson may play both ways and the carries will be spread out among more runners, as two ninth-graders both enjoyed outstanding seasons on the freshman team.
“We feel very confident that we can get Diontae over on defense and not have to rely on him as much offensively,” the coach said. “Diontae probably would tell you he doesn’t mind it. I think he would rather carry the football but he can be helluva defensive player, whether we play him at weakside linebacker or safety he’ll deliver the mail, he’ll hit you.”
Actually, Nicholson is more than ready for it.
“I wanted to play linebacker this year and next year I’m looking forward to playing linebacker because I like to hit,” he said. “Whatever is more beneficial for my team. It’s all about the team.”