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If the name Stephen Nicholas sounded familiar to Atlanta Falcons fans after he was drafted by the team in 2007 it's because the former standout University of South Florida linebacker was recruited by the University of Georgia in 2001.

Of the 11 picks by the Falcons in the 2007 NFL draft, Nicholas was the only linebacker selected. Originally only expected to contribute as a special teams player, in the 2007 preseason he found himself starting at outside linebacker while the incumbent Demorrio Williams recovered from surgery on a torn pectoral muscle.

Current Falcons' defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder served as the team's linebackers coach under former head coach Bobby Petrino in 2007 and he was impressed with the USF all-time sack leader (20 sacks in four years) right away.

"The first thing that really stands out to me was how he seemed comfortable," VanGorder said after the first 2007 preseason game, which Nicholas finished with four tackles. "He wasn't paralyzed by the first NFL game experience. I thought he held up real well."

Nicholas finished the 2007 campaign with 37 tackles, one sack, and one fumble recovery in 13 games. He earned the lone sack in a five tackle effort against the Seattle Seahawks in the last game of the season.

After Atlanta drafted middle linebacker Curtis Lofton in 2008, former middle linebacker Keith Brooking was moved to the outside and that created a starter's logjam at the position and Nicholas continued to patiently watch and learn from the sidelines and the film room.

Nicholas is used to waiting patiently. After a stellar all-state high school career in Florida, he was only able to play in three games as a freshman at USF before an ankle injury required a medical redshirt.

And then came the wait of his life came after the first day of the 2007 NFL draft. The Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, and Jacksonville Jaguars expressed the most interest in the 6'1", 232 pound linebacker and he knew he'd likely hear his name called in the third or fourth round.

But as the third round and day one came and went his phone had yet to ring.

"I got about five [hours]," Nicholas said of his post-day one night's sleep. "That was about all I could stand. You get anxious."

Once the second day of the draft started his NFL career began to pick up speed, selected as the 10th pick in the fourth round, but he was no longer sitting at home in front of the television. Instead, he was sitting in the back of his father's church with his phone ringer and vibration set as high as possible.

"With the music and singing, it gets loud in there," he said, and he was expecting a phone call that he didn't want to miss.

When the call came he quickly slipped outside with his wife of five weeks and listened to a Falcons coach (he can't remember who) ask if he was ready to be a Falcon.

"You could say my prayers were answered. It was in God's hands. I put in my report card, worked hard, did what I could do at USF. I'm blessed to have this opportunity," Nicholas said of the entire draft experience.

Working hard is something for which he's become known and an intangible that helped him get drafted.

Prior to the draft scouts praised his constant motor and his intelligent and energetic approach to the game.

His high school coach, Randy Glass, said he's not surprised by the success Nicholas has experienced. He knew the linebacker's work ethic would take him a long way.

Jim Leavitt, USF's head football coach, said Atlanta made a smart pick going with Nicholas.

"If you give this kid an opportunity, you won't get him off the field. Stephen Nicholas doesn't have any weaknesses. He makes plays, he's relentless and he perseveres. Stephen was a born leader from the start at USF and he's smart as a whip."

A born leader is exactly the kind of player the Falcons will need in the upcoming 2009 season. After losing five starters on defense and only one significant free agent signing (linebacker Mike Peterson) Nicholas is expected to compete for a starting job.

The two-time All-Big East player has the ability to make an impact at linebacker for the Falcons. He's durable, roams the field looking to make a big hit, has a mean streak, is versatile, and can cover the pass. At least that's what scouts were saying about him heading into the draft.

He ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at USF's Pro Day (he didn't run the forty at the combine) and some scouts questioned whether he has the speed to be effective at the weak side. In typical former head coach fashion, Leavitt disagreed.

"If people think there's a faster outside linebacker, they're wrong," he said. "I timed him at a 4.49. I know he can play. He's one of the best players I've ever been around with all his intangibles--his character and work ethic."

The margin between 4.49 and 4.64 is significant, but it does imply that he has the mythical "game speed" that so many personnel men talk about. Watch Nicholas on film and you'll see it in action. Better yet, watch him in 2008 as part of the record-setting Falcons' special teams unit and you'll see it. Like so many before him, he may have earned a starting job playing in one of the least-recognized roles (by fans) in his first two years in the league.

Falcons' head coach Mike Smith likes fast, versatile, and aggressive players on his defense. Letting so many players walk in free agency this year signifies a move toward youth (and speed) and a belief that they have the players needed already on their roster or they can find them in the draft. Smith has already gone on record saying that Nicholas will be in the mix for a starting job in '09.

Nicholas, the son of a preacher, is familiar with answered prayers. He's in the NFL because of one. And now, he looks to be the answer to Falcons' fans linebacker prayers for the 2009 season.

Considered the heart and soul of the USF defense during his time in college, the Falcons hope he's got some of both left for them. If it turns out he does, the questions, and prayers, may be answered for the 2009 Atlanta Falcons.

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