One of the more intriguing undrafted free agents Cincinnati landed this year is Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
The most memorable to do so has been Vontaze Burfict, who went from being undrafted out of Arizona State to becoming one of the game’s best backers. Burfict is also a player who the Nickerson’s father, Hardy Nickerson Sr. enjoys watching.
“He brings that physicality,” Nickerson Sr. said of Burfict via Bengals.com. “I’ve been watching him since Arizona State. I saw a lot of Pac 12 games. I see him out there bringing the wood. I’m excited to play with him. He’s physical. He flies around.”
The elder Nickerson hopes to see his son have the kind of career Burfict has had going from being undrafted and forgotten about to being a household name.
“He’s (Burfict) another guy that came out undrafted showing everybody. Sideline-to-sideline. Making plays in the run game and the pass game,’ Nickerson Sr. said. “A guy that’s going to change the game whether it’s a big hit or a takeaway.”
Nickerson Sr. was actually coached by Lewis in the 90s when they both were in Pittsburgh, the latter being a young coach on the rise.
“Smart as a whip,” Lewis said this week of Nickerson Sr.. “All business. Sudden. Very sudden. Never wasted a step. Tough as hell. Couldn’t ask for a better person to break you in. Every day they did. Every day. All those guys. Hardy. Greg Lloyd. David Little. Jerrol Williams. Jerry Olsavsky. They were very demanding.”
Nickerson Sr. attributes a big part of his success to Lewis’ coaching. After all, Nickerson was more of a role player during his first three NFL seasons, but once Lewis arrived in 1990, the breakthrough began with five Pro Bowl berths and four All-Pro honors from 1993-1999 (Lewis’ final season as the linebackers coach in Pittsburgh was in 1995).
“Very detailed and demanding,” is how Nickerson remembered Lewis that first year. “He has a way of getting the best out of players. It was one of my best years. That season kind of set the stage for me in terms of becoming a free agent in that first class … That year made me highly sought after. I probably owe a lot of that to Coach Lewis getting me coached up.”
The younger Nickerson, who will be joining the Bengals and competing for a roster spot this season, doesn’t have as much fanfare right now. One thing he does have is the rare honor of being an all-conference performer in two different Power 5 leagues. He began his career at Cal, where he was an All-Pac 12 performer in 2015 after registering 111 tackles.
The 6-foot, 232-point Nickerson would spend a postgraduate season at Illinois, where his father, Hardy Nickerson Sr. was named defensive coordinator in 2016. The younger Nickerson had 107 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss two sacks and two interceptions that season, which earned him All-Big Ten honors.
It helps that he’s always had a former NFL star to look up to, giving him added motivation to do great things in the pros.
“It’s something I always wanted to do. I looked up to him and always wanted to do what he did,” The younger said as he prepared to fly to Cincinnati this week. “I was exposed to the locker room. That created that love for the game. I always wanted to play. You can just go out there and let it loose, especially at my position. You have to be a guy that’s passionate, physical, and loves to play the game.”
The younger Nickerson is in for a battle to carve out an NFL career in Cincinnati, where a crowded linebacker group of Burfict, Vinny Rey, Kevin Minter, Nick Vigil and fourth-round rookie Carl Lawson are all but locked into roster spots.
That leaves Nickerson to battle P.J. Dawson, Marquis Flowers and sixth-round rookie Jordan Evans for one of the final backup spots. It’s more likely he ends up on the practice squad, but if history is any indicator, don’t count out a Nickerson.