As Navy’s 2022 football season rolls past its midpoint, senior placekicker Bijan Nichols wrestles with his unexpected place on the Midshipmen’s roster.
Nichols, whose analytical mind, icy calm, and exceptional ability already have made him one of the top kickers in school history after three seasons, is still adjusting to a challenge he could not have foreseen two months ago.
Since a practice in late August, when he suffered a leg injury he calls a “fluke thing,” Nichols has not seen the playing field.
Instead, Nichols is recovering and filling an effective role as an extra-kicking coach. While he is deprived of the competition that drives him, Nichols has embraced his mission by helping his replacement, senior Daniel Davies – his holder for the past two years – replace him effectively.
“Being a senior and a co-captain, [not playing] has been hard. I’m still [a presence] in the locker room and at practice, staying positive,” Nichols says. “I have to lead. I’ve got the experience I can help with. I can still impact the guys. But being unable to be an example by doing anything on the field eats at me, kills me inside.”
Entering his final preseason camp, Nichols was poised to be a major contributor on a team that finished the 2021 season winners in three of its final five games, including a 17-13 win over Army.
Nichols, who seized the starting kicking job as a freshman on a team that won a school-record 11 games, including beating Air Force and Army, and Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl, had only missed one game due to injury in his career before this year.
Having been a model of consistency with his obsessive work ethic, high-level performance, and team-first attitude, Nichols had been named a tri-captain. He is believed to be the first placekicker and second kicker ever accorded such an esteemed honor in the 140-year history of Navy football. Former punter Bob Bowstrom was a team captain 92 years ago.
Nichols, who has scored 204 points and needs only 19 more to own the program’s career record for a kicker, fully anticipated beginning the season with his team on September 3 against visiting Delaware.
But during the week leading up to the opener, Nichols’ fortunes took a cruel turn. He knew something was wrong when he felt a jolt of pain in his right leg on the follow-through as Nichols finished booting a practice field goal, a sequence he had repeated thousands of times without incident.
Suddenly, Nichols was faced with the reality of missing the first game of the season and the recovery task, with no idea when he would return to his normal job.
Nichols has yet to play during Navy’s 2-4 start, although he has made steady progress toward his return in recent weeks and could see action on Saturday against Houston at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.
In the meantime, Davies has stepped up with remarkable results — thanks in no small part to the contributions of Nichols, whom Davies says has been instrumental in building his confidence and sharpening Davies’ mental approach to his job.
Davies has converted seven field-goal attempts, including three in the Navy’s two wins over East Carolina and Tulsa. His 29-yarder beat the Pirates in the second overtime. In Navy’s 53-21 rout over Tulsa, Davies’ three includes a 46-yarder. He also has gone 15-for-15 on PATs. In addition, junior Evan Warren has performed well as a kickoff specialist, averaging 58.4 yards on 22 kickoffs with nine touchbacks.
“Every day [Nichols] is out there. If he’s not working on [strengthening] his leg, he’s working with us on timing our kicks and the whole field-goal operation,” Davies says. “He’s even helping the freshmen shag balls, anything he can do.”
“It was a big blow when he got hurt. ‘Bij’ is always there, so consistent,” Davies adds. “He’s the most seasoned veteran on our team. He is very calculating and technical with what he does and how he warms up daily. Mentally, he’s a stud who doesn’t let pressure affect him. He has been a huge help to me, my confidence, and my approach to the job.”
Chuck Petersen, Navy’s first-year offensive assistant coach who happens to be Nichols’ uncle – Petersen’s son and Nichols’ cousin, Brady Petersen, is a 2019 graduate of Navy, where he played football for four years – says Nichols has been impressive in the way he has handled his tough situation and stayed focused on lifting his team a different way.
“Bijan has always been very driven. As a young guy, he acted older, way more mature than his age,” Petersen says. “He hurts the most because he can’t help this team. It’s not about him.”
“He’s physically and emotionally involved with all aspects of the kicking game,” Petersen adds. “He’s probably led more through this injury because of how he has handled it than he would have had been healthy. At some point, he’ll be back, and he will make a kick that decides a big-time football game.”
“[Nichols’] dedication is what impresses me the most. He wants to be great at everything he does – his academics, being a captain, whatever. He goes above and beyond,” says Navy receivers coach Mick Yokitis, who recruited Nichols at Rockwall-Heath High School outside of Dallas and is working with the Mids’ kickers this year.
“It’s easy to hang in the back of the room if you’re not performing on Saturdays,” Yokitis adds. “I think Bijan’s level of engagement has increased now that he’s not the guy. It is fascinating being around him on a day-to-day basis.”
Nichols has chosen an unusual path in the Navy. As a physics major, he is tackling one of the tougher academic puzzles at the Naval Academy. After considering several service preferences, he hopes his selection as a submarine officer is approved.
“What got me interested in [submarines] is understanding how self-sufficient they are, especially from an energy and fuel standpoint,” Nichols says. “With all of the Navy subs being nuclear-powered, there is the limiting factor with how long they can be operational with food for the crew. The missions they do, and how important they are to our national defense. That all very much interests me.”
Brady Petersen, who is exactly five years older than Nichols, 21, and shares the same May 1 birthday with his cousin, recalls the young Bijan as being more interested in academics and not missing a day of school than he was in sports. Nichols did develop a love of soccer early on in elementary school and would excel later in high-level club soccer as a center midfielder through middle school and most of high school. He and Davies were club soccer teammates in the sixth grade.
Nichols, who played flag football in second grade, did not take up the actual sport until his freshman year at Rockwall-Heath.
“Before our family moved to Texas, we’d lived in Colorado, and we’d visit like twice a year,” says Brady Petersen, who served the football program during the 2019 season as a temporary active duty (TAD) officer. “I remember at Christmas, we’d all get the typical gifts, and Bijan always wanted something to build, create, or construct. Not just LEGOs.”
Nichols recalls that by the end of eighth grade, which he spent doing online schooling while spending a residency year at a soccer academy in the Dallas area, he wanted to connect more with friends who were attending or about to attend Rockwall-Heath High.
“I wasn’t too happy with online school and wanted to return to public high school. A lot of my friends were on the football team,” Nichols recalls. “I was better at kicking than being safety or receiver, so I thought I’d give [placekicking] a shot. I kind of fell into it.”
Nichols, who was known to show up at 5:30 a.m. to practice alone for an hour ahead of morning practices, made lots of good things happen with that right leg and foot.
He was the lone freshman to make the varsity and would letter four times in football and three in soccer, a spring sport. He was a two-time First-Team All-District kicker and garnered All-District honors as a punter. In soccer, Nichols was the All-District Newcomer of the Year as a freshman and a First-Team All-District midfielder as a sophomore.
Following his freshman football season, Nichols explored private kicking instruction and camps to see more quality competition and possibly get noticed by college recruiters. Some of the high school talent he encountered included current Texas A&M kicker Caden Davis and Cleveland Browns kicker Cade York.
“Pretty much every kicker I saw in high school, I told myself I was better than them, even though I knew that wasn’t true at the time,” Nichols says. “In my mind, I was the no. 1 kicker in the country. If you don’t bet on yourself, who will?”
Carson Wiggs, formerly a four-year kicker at Purdue and now a kicking coach with the prestigious Chris Sailer Kicking School, took on Nichols as a pupil during his last three years at Rockwall-Heath.
“Bijan stood out at first because of how smoothly he handled the pressure,” Wiggs recalls. “He’s a fact-oriented person who can free his mind and focus on execution. He understood why he missed a kick and his ball spun too much. He’s a student of the craft. I’ve watched him go from a kid who could barely make a 35-yarder to a guy who is dropping bombs now.”
Nichols liked the idea of playing for a service academy, for academic and career reasons and partly because his uncle, Chuck Petersen, had graduated from and played cornerback at Air Force, where Nichols witnessed numerous games in Colorado Springs as a kid. Petersen graduated in 1985 before beginning 17-year coaching run with the Falcons in 1990.
But Air Force showed little interest in Nichols, who got his first offer from Army. He committed in late November of his senior year but de-committed a few weeks later when he jumped at an offer from the Navy.
“I changed my mind and haven’t looked back since,” Nichols says.
Early in the Navy’s fall 2019 football camp, Nichols was making booming, accurate kicks in live-snap settings and under simulated and real pressure. After drilling one field goal, then-senior center and captain Ford Higgins turned to head coach Ken Niumatalolo and said, “That’s our kicker.”
“Bijan kind of came out of nowhere and just won the position. Early in camp, we were like, ‘Who is this guy?” says Niumatalolo, who adds he has fielded recent inquiries from NFL scouts regarding Nichols.
Navy matched a program-best by winning 11 games in 2019. That year, a freshman named Nichols made the biggest contribution to Navy football since Keenan Reynolds took over the Mids’ offense a month into the 2012 season and began a stellar, four-season run.
Nichols left his mark in ’19 with game-winning field goals against Tulane – a 48-yarder – and Kansas State in the season-ending Liberty Bowl. He converted 12 of 17 field goals, including a then career-high 49-yarder and three other makes beyond 40 yards. He converted 61 of 62 extra-point attempts.
He has missed only three of 108 PAT attempts in his career and has made 71.4 percent of his field-goal tries (33-for-46). Those include three game-winners and 11 kicks over 40 yards, including a pair of 50-yarders.
Now, he is anxious to finish healing, end his absence from the playing field, and make one more mark for his team.
“I just want to be the same guy who has grown up in the program and learned the way to do things correctly,” Nichols says. “I want to be consistent and execute and be a good teammate. I know I’m coming back.”