This Saturday's football game at Mackay Stadium will be more than just a Mountain West game for Nevada's Tristan Nichols.
The Kihei, Hawaii native will face his hometown university and former teammates for the third and final time of his Wolf Pack career. Nichols' parents and siblings will be traveling 2,520 miles from Hawaii to Reno for the game, as they did in 2019, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season was played without fans and family in Hawaii, which happened to be Nichols' lone game on the island with the Wolf Pack.
"My mom came over from Maui to say, 'What's up?' and made leis and stuff for the team and handed them out at the hotel, but she wasn't able to come to the game, unfortunately," Nichols told Nevada Sports Net this week. "It means a lot (for his family to be at this Saturday's game) because obviously the support's immense. I just couldn't ask for a better support system honestly. They're the world to me, so I'm really excited to hopefully put on a show for them."
Nichols was recruited by Hawaii and former head coach Nick Rolovich out of Arizona Western College. He also had offers from New Mexico and Oregon State but chose to play for the Wolf Pack after former defensive ends coach, Jason Kaufusi, recruited him. Kaufusi, who is now at UCLA, built a great relationship with Nichols, who also got advice from his parents to head to the mainland for college to experience something new.
Through five games this season, Nichols is tied for first in the nation with six sacks in the four games he's played, averaging 1.5 sacks per game. Nevada's defense is second in the nation at 4.4 sacks per game, with 22 this season after posting just 15 in eight regular-season games last year. At this pace, Nichols is on track to break Dontay Moch and Jorge Cordova's all-time single-season Wolf Pack record of 11.5 sacks.
"Having confidence and being able to go out there and trust my ability and technique and stuff," Nichols' said of his performance so far this season. "So that's probably the main indicator, having that confidence I was lacking before. Coach (Brian) Ward has been just so great with us. He's moved from the linebackers to coaching the defensive line this year, and I feel like that was almost like the missing link to us unlocking our true potential, and he's just been able to bring a lot of good things out of us."
In the Wolf Pack's last two games against the Rainbow Warriors, Nevada fell, 54-3, in 2019 at Mackay Stadium and 24-21 at Aloha Stadium in 2020 to snap the Wolf Pack's then-perfect season. The Wolf Pack is calling this a "redemption game" rather than a revenge game as it looks to break the losing streak against Hawaii.
"Everybody's pretty fired up," Nichols said. "It's a big game because the last two years we kind of dropped the ball playing against Hawaii. So we're really just looking to come out and get after it. So everybody's pretty energetic. If we just make plays on the front, then I know we're helping out our back end. If we can disrupt the quarterback, it's going to be a long day for them. If we can affect the quarterback, I know our corners and safeties and linebackers are going to have an easier time, so that's really just the main thing we've been focusing on."
Hawaii is coming off a bye week after defeating Fresno State, which was ranked No. 18 in the nation prior to the loss. In that game, the Rainbow Warriors started true freshman quarterback Brayden Schager, who completed 11-of-27 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns as starter Chevan Cordeiro was sidelined with an injury. He has been sharing reps at practice this week with Schager, according to KHON's Rob DeMello, but no starter has been named. Nevada's defense is preparing for both quarterbacks, and Nichols is quite familiar with Cordeiro after the two played together at Saint Louis High School.
"Obviously No. 12 (Cordeiro) is more of a runner and 13 (Schager), he's a true freshman, but he obviously had a good game against Fresno, so he knows how to play," Nichols said. "We're just not taking either one of them lightly, so we've got a good scheme for both. (Cordeiro) is a runner. He's kind of hard to get after. He's not going to let you just sack him. So we're just going to have to key in on him if he's the one playing, but they run a really smooth offense. They've got playmakers at wide receiver and running back, and I just feel like if we can take take away those playmakers then we'll be OK."
During Nichols' senior year of high school, he played with Cordeiro, who was a second-string freshman at the time behind current Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Nichols, whose brother was a kicker for Hawaii in 2018, also played with current Rainbow Warriors linebacker Isiah Tufaga in high school and competed against a number of other players on the roster during his high school career.
"It's crazy," Nichols said of playing against his former teammates this weekend. "It's what we dreamed of, not necessarily playing against each other, but just being at this stage and being able to make it this far is just awesome."