Manteca’s Blake Nichelson will start the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section D2 playoffs next week with 79 career touchdowns and a firm commitment to Florida State. It’s his versatility to literally play any position on the field, however, that can spark lively conversations about how his development as a player will evolve in future seasons.
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Not long after Blake Nichelson had rambled for one of his seven touchdowns rushing in Manteca High’s recent 56-49 wild-and-wacky loss to Central Catholic of Modesto, several sideline reporters were shaking their heads.
“Is he really going to be a linebacker in college?” one of them asked. “He’s just so good on offense.”
“Yes, inside linebacker,” another one replied. “That’s the plan.”
Nichelson is a 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior for the Buffaloes who often generates that kind of intrigue. He is primarily a running back on offense and in that Central Catholic game he also rushed for 406 yards on 24 carries, which broke his own school record of 344 set last year (also in a high-scoring loss to Wilcox of Santa Clara in the CIF NorCal D2-A regional championship).
For the season in 13 games as a junior, Nichelson was seventh overall in the state for reported rushing leaders with 2,231 yards. He also was first among large or medium school juniors.
Nichelson’s scoring totals were even more impressive. He led the state overall (including seniors) for 2021 with 44 touchdowns and 288 points (including conversions). He’s already among the all-time career leaders for Northern California with 79 touchdowns.
So far this season, Nichelson isn’t rushing at the same rate because some of the pressure has been taken off by teammate Bryson Davis. But he still enters the team’s first CIF Sac-Joaquin Section D2 playoff game with 1,128 yards. He also could still equal or surpass 44 touchdowns with 32 so far and with perhaps as many as five games left.
Catching the ball out of the backfield or lined up at the end also has been a particular strength of Nichelson. This season, he has 19 catches for 502 yards and 10 TDs and he has 42 career catches for 1,030 yards and 18 scores.
And then there’s the defense. Although he doesn’t have prolific tackle totals like he does rushing yards, Nichelson has displayed the speed and skills to play outside linebacker, defensive end, inside linebacker and strong safety. He had 49 tackles with 7.0 sacks last season and so far this season he has 44 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Manteca head coach Mark Varnum also shook his head when asked if he thought inside linebacker gave his standout player the best chance for future success.
“Those guys at Florida State know what they’re doing, but he’s the best high school running back I’ve ever seen,” Varnum said. “He could play running back at the college D1 level.”
Blake himself will listen to all opinions about how his future as a football player will evolve, but it isn’t up for debate.
“Florida State and most of the other colleges who recruited me wanted me as an inside ‘backer, and I think that is what I will become,” he said during an interview last Thursday at Manteca toward the end of practice. “It will be a new position, but at the same time I’ve played different positions on defense here and it’s been fine.”
In September, Nichelson committed to the Seminoles at a press conference at the school. The other two finalists were UCLA and Oregon. There haven’t been many from California who’ve gone to Tallahassee, but former state career rushing leader Lorenzo Booker from St. Bonaventure (Ventura) had some success there. One of the team’s top receivers this season, Johnny Wilson, is from Calabasas and one of the team’s quarterbacks, A.J. Duffy, was a prolific passer for two seasons at Rancho Verde (Moreno Valley) before he transferred to IMG Academy in Florida.
“As soon as I got there, it felt like home to me,” Blake said. “The fans are just so great and it’s where I want to be. I think it will be the best opportunity there.”
Taking Advantage of COVID
Manteca may be where Nichelson goes to school, but his hometown and where his family still lives is just south in the smaller town of Ripon. His father, Don, is a firefighter and his mother, Nicole, is a teacher. He also has an older brother, Wyatt, who played football and graduated from Ripon Christian.
Nichelson was at a private school to start high school as well, but at Central Catholic of Modesto. He was seen greeting and still getting along with some of his former freshman teammates at that recent game.
The freshman season of Nichelson also did not offer even close to a preview of what he’d become at Manteca. He missed many games with a sprained ACL and for months he couldn’t run close to full speed. Then the COVID pandemic hit, which caused Blake and the family to make some changes.
“When everything that year was moved online, it didn’t make sense for us to pay for a private school,” he said.
Being in quarantine and with so many other aspects of life shut down also turned Nichelson into a workout warrior.
“I looked at the whole thing as a chance to get better,” he said. “I was working out every day and every day spending hours on end trying to better my game.”
Blake estimates he was around 5-foot-10 as a freshman, but by the time that spring 2021 COVID season rolled around he was close to 6-foot-2 and well over 190 pounds.
“He was more of a DB type when he got here, but from day one his athleticism has been unbelievable,” Varnum said. “He was more of a receiver that first season, but he was unguardable.”
The head coach adds that Nichelson’s improvements so far this year are more from what he does as a teammate and leader.
“That’s been his biggest jump,” Varnum said. “He’s now just such a student of the game. He just loves it. And that’s contagious to everybody on the team.”
Bouncing Back From First Loss
Nichelson’s former school has had Manteca’s number in recent seasons and even though the team came into its game with Central Catholic two weeks ago at 8-0 and with big wins over teams like Turlock and Patterson and even though the Raiders were 4-4, it was another tough loss.
Nichelson himself was fabulous with all those rushing yards and touchdowns, but the special teams giving up a touchdown on a kickoff return and fumbling the ball on another kickoff helped turn the tide in the 56-49 loss.
Manteca still had to play its longtime league rivals from Oakdale to end the regular season (a team it split with last year). The Buffaloes were just as potent on offense and cleaned up other issues in a resounding 55-0 win. Since the two schools have played since 1922, it was thought that it might be the biggest win ever by Manteca over Oakdale and that turned out to be correct.
With Central Catholic moved up to D1 and Manteca moved up to D2 for the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs, there will be no rematch with the Raiders. The Buffaloes are seeded No. 1 in their 12-team bracket and will play in the quarterfinals next Friday at home vs Vacaville (which played in the first round this week and topped Lodi, 35-20).
Davis rushed for 212 yards in the win over Oakdale as Blake was keyed on and also used more as a pass catcher. He and the coaches know all too well that more balanced attacks go the furthest in section and then CIF state bowl games.
Central Catholic won the D2 section title, played and beat Bullard of Fresno in the CIF NorCal D2-AA regional championship and then lost to Mater Dei Catholic of Chula Vista in the D2-AA state final at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. Manteca’s path likely would be similar if it were to win the section title, but everyone obviously is hoping for even more. The school has won seven section titles, but has not won a CIF state title.
“I honestly think we just can’t get down on ourselves when things don’t go well,” Nichelson said about the team’s chances in the next few weeks. “Just our overall confidence has to be a little higher.”
“We’ve just got to play our game and don’t make mistakes,” Varnum said. “We’ve also got to learn how to win close games.”
Having a player like Blake Nichelson in those close games can’t hurt, either.
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