Demetrious Nicholson has been a starter at Virginia, basically since he walked on the practice field for the first time two years ago.
Nicholson has started all 25 of the Cavaliers' games at cornerback, the past two seasons. No player on the UVa defense has more career starts. And on a team filled with players entering just their first or second seasons of college football, Nicholson understands his role as a leader.
"I've definitely progressed, as far as working out in the off-season, over the summer," Nicholson said after Thursday's practice. "Getting the guys together, learning the defense, and being an example that the guys can look at and know that that's the right way to go."
Nicholson arrived at UVa two summers ago as the reigning Gatorade State Player of the Year in Virginia, a consensus four-star recruit regarded as one of the top cornerback prospects in the country.
Playing opposite Chase Minnifield, Nicholson finished his freshman year with 60 tackles, eight pass break-ups, and a pair of interceptions. That performance was good enough to earn second-team Freshman All-American honors from Yahoo! Sports.
Last year, despite being just a sophomore, Nicholson was the veteran in a new-look UVa secondary. He was named an All-ACC honorable mention after racking up 56 tackles, and tying for the league lead with 15 pass break-ups.
But Nicholson didn't have an interception in 2012. And his coach says Nicholson needs to take his game to the next level this fall.
"Now this is a year, we've talked about him being more aggressive. Him being more assertive about what's going on out there," Mike London said Thursday. "He's smart, he's tough. And now we want to see him making some of those plays that we know he's capable of doing."
"So it's an important year for him."
Nicholson is again the most experienced member of the UVa secondary. But this year, the Cavaliers return all four starters from the previous season, with Nicholson joined by corner DreQuan Hoskey and safeties Anthony Harris and Brandon Phelps.
The team also has a new defensive coordinator in Jon Tenuta, who brings a more aggressive, attacking style. And Nicholson says he and his fellow defensive backs are ready to step up.
"The secondary are pretty much the game-changers," he said. "We can get interceptions. Whenever the ball's in the air we can get our offense a chance to get the ball back and change a game. So we definitely want to make more plays this year than last year, and get better."