Tulane cornerback Parry Nickerson ran stride for stride with South Florida wide receiver Darnel Salomon, turned around to find the deep ball and swatted it away with his right hand near the goal line.
He then stared down the Bulls’ sideline and asked them to keep testing him, replete with a “bring it on” hand gesture five times in a row as he went back to line up for the next play.
ESPN2 color analyst Kirk Morrison referred to Nickerson’s coverage as a “Clinic tape,” a highlight that would be shown to the team in video review the following day as the perfect example of how to play cornerback.
“I was into the game,” said Nickerson, a senior from West Jefferson High. “When opportunities like that come your way, you have to make plays. From the start of the game, I tried to set the tone and help my team in any way possible.”
Moments like that are the reason Nickerson was named one of 13 semifinalists this week for the Thorpe Award, which goes to the top defensive back in college football.
All but two of the semifinalists play for Power Five conference teams, including a pair each from Alabama and Penn State and one from Ohio State, Georgia, Florida State, Stanford and Texas.
Nickerson and Utah State’s Jalen Davis are the only outsiders.
“That’s a great accomplishment,” Nickerson said. “I still have work to do.”
South Florida did not test him after his deflection, looking elsewhere the rest of the way while holding on to beat Tulane 34-28. Almost all of the Green Wave’s opponents have pursued the same avoidance policy this year, but Nickerson still has added interceptions No. 11, 12 and 13 to a career total that is tied for fourth in school history.
Selected second-team All-American Athletic Conference by the league’s coaches in 2016, he is living up to lofty expectations in his final season.
“It starts with preparation at practice,” he said. “Proper preparation prevents poor performance. Recovering and getting the right amount of rest, all that stuff played a big part in my game. Every week I have to keep doing what I’ve done.”
Nickerson flashed his potential the first time he stepped on the field for Tulane, making seven tackles and forcing a fumble after entering the 2013 season opener against Jackson State at the Superdome when starter Lorenzo Doss was ejected for targeting.
Nickerson did not play the rest of the season, getting redshirted due to a knee injury, but he has started all but two games since then. He came up with six interceptions in 2014, earning first-team freshman All-America honors from USA Today.
Last year, his first under coach Willie Fritz, he returned four interceptions for 171 yards.
“He does a great job of playing man-to-man coverage,” Fritz said. “There’s an art to understanding whether you can turn to the quarterback or turn through the face of the receiver or stay in phase and play the ball. He makes those really good split-second decisions.”
Nickerson also has become much more than just a cover guy. Through seven games, he already has 36 tackles, seven more than for all of last season.
“He’s just really improved his tackling,” Fritz said. “He’s a complete player. That’s probably what’s going to give him the opportunity to continue to keep playing (professional football) when the season’s over with.”
Nickerson is looking forward to his next challenge at Memphis this Friday. Aside from Oklahoma, the Tigers possess the most prolific passing attack Tulane will face this season.
Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson passed for a school-record 471 yards Thursday in a come-from-behind 42-38 win at Houston, directing touchdown drives on the Tigers’ first five second-half series. Two weeks earlier, he tied a school mark with seven scoring tosses against Connecticut.
Wideout Anthony Miller, second on Memphis’ list of career receptions with 197, has 55 catches for 784 yards this year.
The Wave will take its chances with Nickerson on the field.
“His natural ability and instinct are just phenomenal,” senior linebacker Rae Juan Marbley said. “He’s a baller. I’m definitely glad I have Parry on my side.”
Quarterback Jonathan Banks did not receive any reps in team drills as the end of Tuesday’s practice, resting the dislocated finger he suffered on his throwing hand against South Florida. Johnathan Brantley and Glen Cuiellette filled in for him. … Starting safety Roderic Teamer, who left the South Florida game with an ankle injury, also sat out practice. … Tulane will have one more workout Wednesday before Friday’s game.