Freshman Nick Romano probably is the only Idahoan who can say he began his Division I college football career with a Week 1 start at running back, in the presence of about 105,000 onlookers in the world’s third-largest sporting venue: Penn State’s Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa.
“Now you know what it’s like, the biggest stage possible,” said Romano, who shares the Vandals’ running back duties with a few others.
Really, Romano might not need that distinction to stand out. Who can think of another Idaho-born notable who started at running back in Game 1 as an 18-year-old?
Not only that, but signing the 5A All-Idaho Player of the Year hasn’t been the Vandals’ norm during the past two decades — i.e. inking the entire state’s premier prep player.
Especially an Idahoan like Romano who, as a senior, guided his high school to an undefeated record with 32 touchdowns on more than 2,200 yards rushing, and not one fumble.
Or in particular, one who accrued more than 300 yards in a state-title win, then cruised through his senior year with a 4.0 grade-point average.
Romano, a 5-foot-10, 203-pounder from Meridian’s Rocky Mountain High, was the gem of the Gem State. He’s the type of full-package, high-ceiling but genuinely humble local player the Vandals have sought out with their renewed focus on thoroughly recruiting the region.
It might not be Romano’s style to take much credit, but as a senior in the Treasure Valley, he was plain hard to miss. Harder to bring down.
“That hard-nosed stuff is always there and man, he’s fast,” said Chris Culig, Romano’s high school coach for three years. “He’s just solid; he’s all there, and a very good student. You knew he’d give you all he had. He stepped up his senior year, worked hard and when he had opportunities, he made the most of ’em.”
It was a breakout for Romano, a quiet leader who was a bit “late on the scene,” after a brief stint in the secondary as a sophomore, then a junior year in which he lined up as a fullback in Rocky’s triple option. At the time, now-Air Force track athlete Carter Kuehl was shouldering the load.
Romano still was a home-run threat and a first-team all-league standout with about 700 yards, mostly on inside runs. It didn’t take much more than a peek for Culig to realize he had “someone with the potential to be pretty special.”
D-I potential, that is. After his 2017 season, Romano began to grasp that his best shot to make a college roster was through football.
“Honestly, I was a baseball guy until the end of my junior year,” said Romano, an All-State baseball outfielder as a sophomore. “That summer, I said, ‘I’m gonna commit to football and really work at it.’ It was tough, but I was just trying not to worry about baseball, trying to put on weight, get faster.”
That meant completely giving up one sport and his co-passion, dropping the spring season and summer club schedule in place of extended strength and speed drills for football. Like he’d done since age 13, a lot of that training was with his father, Dominic, Romano’s “inspiration behind everything.”
“He turned out to be a pretty good workout partner to keep me in shape,” Dominic Romano laughed. “At a young age, we figured with his natural speed and strength, we’d enhance it.”
It was a good move — Nick Romano now boasts NFL-combine-level numbers in the bench press and 40-yard dash. He’s lifted 385 pounds and runs an unofficial 4.4 40.
Yet, Nick Romano said the bulk of his development is mental. He’s learned not to dwell on previous reps, practically lives in the film (and weight) room and puts his compatriots first.
Coupled with his tendency to “never turn down a hit,” it’s probably how he was able to shake off a bellringer sustained on the first play at 15th-ranked Penn State, then eventually make a 24-yard catch to set up UI’s lone score.
It arguably was the Vandals’ biggest play of the day, if only a sneak preview of the same aptitude Romano used a year earlier to terrorize both the Southern Idaho Conference and the Highland Rams, who saw Romano bust a 95-yard scoring scamper in the state title game.
“Just not being allowed to be brought down; tremendous will and determination. He was always behind the team, focused and unselfish,” Culig said. “And he’s patient, so there’s not a lot of wasted movement. He can turn a 4-yard run into a 70-yard run. If he’s out in the open, he could go to the house, and some people aren’t expecting (that speed).”
With his combination of strength and swiftness, it also was unexpected just how few teams came calling. Aside from Idaho, only Idaho State and Georgetown extended Romano scholarships, and Boise State tendered a preferred walk-on offer.
Dominic Romano figures it’s partially because Rocky Mountain was loaded and Nick hadn’t done offseason showcase camps, so the looks were scarce and mostly local. That boded well for UI, which promised Nick Romano he’d vie for time. He has three carries for 11 yards and three catches for 28 yards this season.
“Here at Idaho, they loved me, so I wanted to play somewhere I felt wanted,” said Romano, who’d only been on the Palouse one time, during a recruiting visit. “Everything about here, even the town, felt like a second home.”
The deal was sealed when UI coach Paul Petrino paid a visit to the Romano home in December, just a couple of months after the Vandals initiated contact with the two-star prospect, according to 247Sports.com.
Petrino was impressed with everything, right down to the lasagna.
“His mom (Laura) is an awesome cook; got some real good Italian food like I had growing up,” Petrino said. “Really cool family, and he’s just a great kid. Super good athlete, super good student. Just everything about him is good.”
It’s that across-the-board upside the Vandals’ staff continues to harp on. It’s why they jumped on Romano with gusto and promptly inserted him as a co-starter at running back.
It’s why they trotted Romano out first, in front of more fans than the program’s ever seen.
Enlisting an in-state MVP never hurts, either.
“It’s obviously a pretty prestigious award, but as soon as the celebration for the state championship died down, it was all Vandal football,” Nick Romano said. “I’m just trying to work hard and stay on the field here.”