CHAMPAIGN — Back in Jacksonville, Florida, there was a scrappy little kid on the football field running around with reckless abandon.
No one could catch up or contain Tahveon Nicholson when he was 5 years old getting started with the Sweetwater Ravens Pop Warner team, so he got a Looney Tunes nickname.
"I was running, basically back and forth," Nicholson said. "And my name is kind of hard to say, so they just ended up calling me Tazmanian and I just stuck with it."
Nicholson, still called Taz by his coaches and teammates at Illinois, said he has kept that edge with him. The nickname has stuck with the Illinois coaching staff because of some of those qualities
"That dude is named Taz for a reason," defensive backs coach Aaron Henry said. "That dude has next level feet. He's scrappy. He's strong as an ox to be such a small frame. He's got really good hips. I mean, just to play that position to play on a high level. He checks every box.”
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As someone who isn’t the biggest defensive back in the world, he’s around 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, he needs all the scrap he can get. Those traits got him some playing time last year, and will be a big reason why he gets on the field if he earns the starting job this fall.
"What he lacks in size he makes up for everywhere else," Henry said. "That's what separates him."
He started a pair of games last season while playing mostly behind Tony Adams, now in training camp with the New York Jets.
Now he has his chance at the starting job opposite Devon Witherspoon. Defensive backs coach Aaron Henry said he was the current leader, but that transfer Terrell Jennings and some younger corners are also in the mix.
"I have a big opportunity," Nicholson said. "It's a big opportunity just to change me and my family's life. I'm just going to take it easy. Just take it day by day. I ain't in no rush."
That would complete a rise for Nicholson, who was originally signed at FAU before he had to take a detour at prep school.
He spent a couple months at Palmetto Prep, helping the Minutemen go 7-0 for the first time in program history, while he ended up getting a Power Five offer after a couple of months.
The prep year did not count towards eligibility and was only one year, making it slightly different from junior college, but the setup was similar.
"It's basically like JUCO," Nicholson said. "It's dog days, but you know, I'm a dog. So I overcame adversity and I just took it one day at a time."
The transition to college football wasn’t always smooth. Henry sat Nicholson down and had a conversation after a couple of instances where he was late to class.
"I asked him, did his actions line up with his dreams?" Henry said. "And at the moment they didn't. And so it was just understanding that he wanted to do better, and he has been a lot better. I'm really excited for that young man."
It was a quick fix, helped by a bond between Henry and Nicholson that has strengthened.
This time around, those actions are lining up. Nicholson has become a leader for the younger guys in a room that lost a lot of experience, with Nate Hobbs and Adams being two of a number of veteran presences to move on.
"Taking it day by day," Nicholson said. "Just stacking days, you know, it just helped me come along. Just listening to my teammates, taking the criticism. Just building character."
A more mature Nicholson who has still stayed true to his nickname has become an important piece to the Illini secondary.
"It's been awesome to see," Henry said. "As a coach, you've got a young man like himself who's trying to help a younger guy. I don't think he would have done that a year before. To see that now, this room is about trying to help the dudes that are behind you in terms of age, right? Help them be better players and in turn we'll be a better football team. Taz is one of those young men, because he has matured, he's put himself in a position to help those younger guys and I think those younger guys are going to make him better and vice versa."