NEWARK — Drew Nickles didn’t know what was wrong with him.
All the Delaware linebacker knew was that he didn’t feel right last preseason.
“I just thought I wasn’t feeling good,” said Nickles. “I didn’t know what was going on. Then it just kind of got worse.”
UD’s medical staff realized that Nickles had apendicitis. By the end of the day that the diagnosis was made, he underwent surgery.
That was just the start of a frustrating fall of 2021 for the veteran.
By the time the season ended, Nickles had played in only four games for the Blue Hens because of the operation and then some other injuries.
Now back for his fifth year at Delaware, Nickles said the season made him appreciate just being healthy again.
“It stinks just not being out there with everybody,” the 22-year-old said after practice on Tuesday morning. “You feel like you’re leaving your team out to dry. I’m just excited to be back. It’s great to be able to practice again.”
On a Delaware defense that is loaded with fifth-year seniors, safety Noah Plack knows how Nickles feels. He missed the first three games of last season after getting in a car accident and breaking a facial bone.
Being sidelined was especially frustrating for Plack considering that most of his body was in good shape and ready to play.
“I spent all summer working my butt off here with all my teammates,” he said. “To get to a week before the season and then have all that happen, it was a little frustrating. Sitting on the sidelines and watching everybody is a little different.”
Delaware has 11 defensive players who have all played in at least 30 career games for the Hens. The group is topped by safety Kedrick Whitehead (Middletown), who is a veteran of 42 contests.
Plack was one of a handful of Blue Hen players who put their name in the NCAA transfer portal after coach Danny Rocco and most of his staff was let go following the ‘21 season.
But Plack said it was an easy decision to stay when most of those players opted not to leave. It didn’t hurt that new head coach Ryan Carty also decided to keep defensive coordinator Manny Rojas.
“I just thought it would be doing them a disfavor of not coming back and finishing out what we started here,” said Plack, who was an honorable mention All-CAA pick in the preseason. “Coach Rojas and I have a great relationship. He recruited me out of high school.”
Of course, Carty doesn’t mind having all those seniors to build around. The Hens return nine of their top 13 tacklers from a year ago.
The first-year head coach hopes those veterans can teach the younger players but can also help motivate each other.
“I think one of the biggest signs of mature leadership is that those guys are going to hold each other accountable, too,” said Carty. “From leader to leader.
“It’s not like they never do anything wrong either, right? Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’re not trying to get away with stuff. I think, since we’ve gotten here, the things we’ve asked of those leaders, we’ve gotten fairly easily. They’ve been really good at it. They’re a good group of kids who have been kind of ready for this. It’s been fun to watch.”
In 2019, Nickles was a big contributor for the Hens. Only a sophomore, he was fourth on the squad with 61 tackles.
In a tough 17-14 loss at Pittsburgh, Nickles collected a career-high 12 tackles with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
But, in part because of the shortened pandemic season in spring 2021, Nickles has played in only 12 games with a total of 23 tackles in the two campaigns since 2019. He’d like to help Delaware win some more games before he finishes his career.
Nickles came back this spring even though he earned his undergraduate degree last spring.
“It wasn’t really that much of a decision (to return),” he said. “Every season, you kind of treat it like your last because you never know what’s going to happen. But I knew I was coming back this year.”
Now Nickles just wants to stay on the field as much as he can. He admits he feels like one of the old guys on the squad.
“You’ve got to take care of the body a lot more,” said Nickles. “Eat better, rest more. All that good stuff.”
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 302-741-8227 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at @DSNSports.