Chris Nicholls’ contributions to the Cal Poly football team have been somewhat understated this season.
Previous Mustangs special teams returners have gotten their due, and largely those players have also been stars elsewhere on the field.
From 2010-11, starting slotback Mark Rodgers set Cal Poly up with notable kick returns. Cornerback Asa Jackson, an NFL draftee, was one of the nation’s best punt returners for three seasons. Before him, receiver Tre’dale Tolver handled return duties, taking a punt 40 yards for a touchdown at Wisconsin in 2008.
Nicholls, a sophomore slotback, might not play a major role in Cal Poly’s offense yet, but he ranks as one of the top returners in the country on both punts and kickoffs.
“The biggest thing with him is he’s got really good instincts running the ball,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “So, he can see the lanes that he’s supposed to see, and he does a good job once he’s seeing it of accelerating through it.”
Averaging 11.9 yards per punt return, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound former Anaheim Servite High standout ranks 12th in the FCS. His 27.3-yard average on kick returns ranks 13th in the country.
He had a 54-yard kickoff return last week at Eastern Washington, his season long, and had an
18-yard punt return to set up a crucial score in the FBS upset over Wyoming in September.
Nicholls also had a 44-yard kick return against Weber State to set up a score that gave the Mustangs a halftime lead. His season-long punt return, 27 yards, also came against the Wildcats.
“He’s been close” to a touchdown return, Walsh said, “four or five times this year, one or two steps away a couple of times, an arm tackle or a leg tackle from breaking it.
“He’s an explosive player and he’s got great quickness and better speed than people think. ... His stature isn’t gigantic, but he plays big, and he’s got a big heart.”