For the third consecutive season South Carolina has had to start a freshman on its offensive line. Fortunately for the Gamecocks, for the third consecutive season, that offensive lineman has performed like a seasoned veteran.
First there was — albeit a redshirt-freshman — Sadarius Hutcherson, who started four games in 2017. Then there was Dylan Wonnum, who moved into the starting lineup midway through last season and started seven games at right tackle.
Now there’s Jaylen Nichols.
A 6-5, 320-pound true freshman from Charlotte, Nichols played in just one game this season (against Charleston Southern) before South Carolina’s incumbent right tackle, Wonnum, injured an ankle against the Buccaneers.
Nichols made his first career start against Kentucky on Sept. 28 ¬— when South Carolina rushed for 247 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Wildcats — and will start for the Gamecocks (2-3) when the team travels to play No. 3 Georgia (5-0) on Saturday at noon.
“[He’s] just very athletic. [He’s] very powerful for a big guy, gets his hands on you, can move people and is athletic enough to block the edge in our league,” Gamecock head coach Will Muschamp said Tuesday.
“… When [he got] on campus, he was very mature in how he handles himself. He’s extremely bright and he can learn. So those are all things you start to look for. He handles tough coaching, which is obviously, at that position. … 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.”
Nichols enrolled at South Carolina in January and went through spring drills with the Gamecocks. He made an immediate impression, earning a spot on the second-team unit at right tackle entering the fall.
“The guy already had talent,” Hutcherson said. “He’s shown it in practice and at fall camp. So I’m not really shocked. We kind of expected it from him.”
Hutcherson has been most impressed with Nichols’ work ethic.
“He comes to play,” the redshirt-junior said. “He just has a lot of confidence right now. He knows we have to correct some mistakes, [but] right now I’ve seen some good things from him.”
Nichols has impressed fellow offensive lineman Eric Douglas since the latter made recruiting visits to Columbia. Douglas, a couple of times, even made the 92-mile drive to Charlotte’s Myers Park High School to watch his future teammate play.
“I knew when he came here he was going to be a problem [for opponents],” Douglas said. “And he showed pretty much everyone what he can do, against Kentucky.”
Said redshirt-freshman offensive lineman Jovaughn Gwyn, “He’s coming along. He’s getting better each and every day. He’s realizing he has to grow up, and that’s what we need from him. He’s doing everything the coaches and his teammates ask of him.
“He’s not just a freshman no more. He’s a freshman that’s playing and we need him to be at his A game.”
Even South Carolina’s defense has noticed Nichols’ quality play.
“He’s good. Good feet. Very, very powerful punch,” Gamecock linebacker Ernest Jones said. “You know, if he gets ahold of you, it’s kind of a wrap. So he’s definitely doing good right now.”