In crowded USC cornerback competition, transfer DeCarlos Nicholson feels at home

Until Lincoln Riley was standing in his living room, late one night last December, DeCarlos Nicholson hadn’t given much serious consideration to leaving Mississippi. He’d spent his entire life in the state. His family lived there. His son had been born there. Everything he knew was within a few hundred miles radius of Hattiesburg.

But now here was USC’s head coach, asking the cornerback to consider moving a world away. Just come visit, he told Nicholson and his family. See what L.A. has to offer.

Riley wasn’t sure, at first, if they would. “I think in the beginning it was kind of a little bit far-out-there for them,” he said.

Nicholson had only really entertained the thought of leaving home once before, committing out of junior college in 2021 to Kentucky. But that December, on early signing day, Nicholson flipped at the last minute to Mississippi State. Starkville was just a two-hour drive from home.

“I always talked about people getting out of Mississippi and putting Mississippi on the map, so to speak,” Nicholson said. “I guess I was kind of scared to do it.”

But Riley had come all the way to his small town of Petal to convince Nicholson of the possibility, and that meant something to him. After a return visit to USC, the prospect of leaving home suddenly didn’t seem so scary.

“This time,” Nicholson said of leaving, “I just felt different about [the decision]. Way more secure.”

His last few years of football had certainly tested that sense of security. When he first arrived at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, in 2020, Nicholson considered himself a dual threat quarterback. He’d led Petal High to the Class 6A state championship game and chose the junior college route to continue on that path, while staying close to home.

“He was just a fantastic athlete,” said Jack Wright, the coach at Gulf Coast Community College. “He jumped off the field at you.”

That athleticism was clear as Nicholson spent his freshman season splitting time under center. But Wright knew his options at the next level of college football would be limited if he stayed there.

“We knew it was going to be a tough road for DeCarlos to leave junior college and play at a high level at the quarterback position,” Wright said. “He just didn’t have enough film of him being able to stand in the pocket and deliver passes routinely down the field.”

So the team’s defensive backs coach suggested moving him to cornerback ahead of his sophomore season. Nicholson, Wright said, welcomed the change.

On paper, it seemed like a perfect fit. Nicholson was 6-foot-3, with long legs and an absurd wingspan — the sort of size at cornerback that coaches salivate over. But a few weeks into his transition, Wright wondered if they’d made the right decision.

“He was slow to adapt at first,” Wright said. “Then spring ball started and the pads came on, and I think just a few days into March, we knew he was where he was supposed to be.”

Three years later, the same tantalizing traits have caught the attention of USC’s staff this spring, as Nicholson finds himself among a suddenly crowded group of cornerbacks competing for time in the Trojans secondary.

Others have more precision and experience at the position. Redshirt senior Jacobe Covington has earned the most consistent praise this spring among cornerbacks, while UCLA grad transfer John Humphrey also appeared slated for a significant role before an injury cut his spring short. But of that group, Nicholson may have the most impressive package of traits.

It was the promise of that potential that led Riley to his living room in the first place.

“You feel like there’s a lot of development left in front of this kid, and that he can get a lot better,” Riley said. “Whereas sometimes you’re bringing in a fourth-year guy and he’s been playing for a while, and yeah, he can get better but maybe you kind of know what he is. We feel like there’s a lot of ceiling there for him.”

Nicholson is still figuring all that out for himself. But now, whenever he wonders if he’s on the right track, he thinks about his son, De’Mauri, who just turned 2 this spring.

It’s all he needs these days to feel at home.

“Just seeing his smile, if I ever get discouraged with football, it’s really made it easier for me, to realize why I do what I do,” Nicholson said.

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