Ciccio's return boosts Mavs' secondary

Colorado Mesa safety Nick Ciccio missed last season when his grades slipped, but the sophomore went back to class and returned to the field. Ciccio had two interceptions last weekend in the Mavs' win.

Two years ago, Nick Ciccio was playing special teams as a freshman for the Colorado Mesa football team.

Instead of redshirting with the rest of his recruiting class, he was also getting some snaps at safety, then moved into the starting lineup when All-American safety Dustin Rivas blew out his left knee.

Ciccio made his share of plays, enough to catch the attention of opposing coaches and earn honorable-mention all-conference honors.

With Rivas graduating, the Mavericks seemed set at safety for 2018 with Ciccio and Darian Turner, another honorable-mention all-conference safety.

Then Turner blew out his right knee playing intramural basketball and Ciccio's grades slipped. They both missed last season.

When asked what he learned from taking his redshirt season last year, Ciccio's response was simple: "Go to class."

"That's probably the biggest thing," Ciccio said, as CMU coach Russ Martin smiled and added, "That's a good start."

"It just helped me realize my love for the game and that I have to do everything right so I can be out there with my teammates," Ciccio said. "Just not mess up again."

Ciccio, a 6-foot, 190-pound redshirt sophomore out of Lutheran High School in Castle Pines, is making up for lost time.

In the season opener at South Dakota Mines, he made six tackles, broke up four passes, intercepted two and forced and recovered one fumble.

"I didn't know until after the game and people were telling me (about the stats)," Ciccio said. "It was kind of cool. At the time, I was just playing."

Ciccio's six passes defended (break-ups plus interceptions) were the most in Division II football in the opening weekend.

"I had a lot of built-up excitement," he said. "I'd waited a whole year and I just couldn't wait to get back out there. I had to do all my assignments and remember my coaching, but I was just really happy to be back out there with my teammates."

Ciccio won a wrestling match against a Hardrocker receiver for his first interception.

His second prevented a touchdown in a tie game in the third quarter. Ciccio timed his jump perfectly on the goal line, snared the ball and returned it 20 yards to keep the game at 30-30.

"We had a lot of really, really big plays in that game," Martin said of the Mavs' 37-33 come-from-behind win. "You look at Greyson's (Matalus) interception (at the goal line with 6 seconds remaining) but Nick had a great one in the end zone that thwarted a drive.

"Lucas Ruiz-Diaz hit that (48-yard) field goal right at the end of the half when we went into our lightning field goal situation and drained that thing. If those things don't happen, we don't have a chance for the game-winning interception at the end of the game.

"That's one of the things I've loved about this football team. They operate exceptionally well as a team."

Saturday's home opener will pose a different test — Eastern New Mexico is a run-first (and second and third) team.

The Greyhounds (1-0) ran the ball 77 times last week in their 35-28 win over Missouri Science and Technology, and threw only six passes.

Running back Paul Terry had 31 carries for 189 yards and scored three touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards a carry.

"We just have to be prepared to make a lot of tackles," Ciccio said of the adjustments the secondary has to make this week. "Stick to your assignments. If we all do that we should be able to shut them down pretty good.

"As long as you stick to your assignment, your gap, that's what we have to focus on this week."

The Greyhounds play power football, mixing triple-option with running between the tackles. They had the ball for 36 minutes, 6 seconds.

"If you only have the ball for 23 minutes, you'd better make sure you're doing things right when you have the ball or you're not going to have a chance," Martin said.

To that end, the onus is on the defense to get off the field and give the offense more chances, whether that's forcing turnovers or punts.

"All of our coaches have preached to us to get turnovers," Ciccio said. "Force the other team to give you the ball and give our offense a chance to go out there."

The defense gave up some plays last week, but the big plays the Mavs made at crucial times made the difference.

"We just don't quit," Ciccio said. "You guys (on offense) can do what you want, but we just won't quit. We'll always come back out there and fight hard. We're a good unit, we're solid together. I think that's how we're going to roll this year."

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