Thomas Niles has a lot to like about playing football at the University of Central Florida.
He plays in the major market of Orlando, Fla., even though the Knights have to compete for fans in a college-football crazed state with three other powerhouses.
Niles, a 2011 Gainesville High graduate, is also a big man on campus as a defensive lineman, who jumped onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2012 with 30 tackles and seven sacks.
With three years of eligibility remaining, he’ll contend for a starting spot this season, after appearing in 13 games last season and starting seven last year for Central Florida, who finished with a 10-4 record and 38-17 win in the 2012 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl against Ball State.
“It’s been a good experience for me here at Central Florida,” Niles said. “We have a great head coach, great facilities, and we’re working hard to build a great tradition.”
Niles’ first year playing was highlighted by back-to-back big games early in the season with four tackles and a pair of sacks against Missouri on Sept. 29, then a season-high seven stops the following week against East Carolina.
Then to end 2012 on a great note, Niles had six tackles (3 1/2 behind the line of scrimmage) in the bowl victory.
Even though he’s hours away from home, it’s easy to see him play with many of Central Florida’s game shown on national TV, one of which last year was an early-season game on ESPN against Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio.
Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller never misses a chance to see Niles play and has enjoyed watching the young lineman flourish.
Miller says that part of Niles’ value is his versatility as a 6-foot-2, 262 pound lineman.
“No one is going to hustle more on the field than Thomas Niles,” Gainesville’s coach said. “There’s not a position up front he can’t play.”
Niles said if there was one major transition to playing college football, it was getting rid of the butterflies before the game.
Against the Tigers, he learned he belonged on the field with his constant disruption of the Tigers offense and managed to slow Tigers quarterback James Franklin.
“I was really nervous to start that game,” said Niles, who plans to major in exercise science. “It was really, really hot that day and Missouri had a good team.”
Rightly so, Niles believes that his high school experience and being part of a 2009 state finalist Red Elephants squad, which was full of future Division-I athletes, helped prepare him for this experience.
His junior year of high school, Niles was on the field with quarterback Blake Sims (now at Alabama), A.J. Johnson (a starting linebacker at Tennesee), wide receiver Tai-ler Jones (Notre Dame) and linebacker Thomas Sprague (Youngstown State).
“You have to play hard all the time when you’re trying to chase down a Blake Sims in practice, and compete against an A.J. Johnson and a Thomas Sprague,” Miller said. “Thomas (Niles) is a player that never took a down off for us.”
This year, Niles is excited about another challenging schedule for Central Florida, which includes a trip to face Penn State on Sept. 14, then a visit to conference rival Louisville on Oct. 18.
Central Florida has also inked a deal to open the following season against Penn State on Aug. 30, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland.