Finding his place
After a strange journey to MSU, junior wide receiver Keith Nichol is putting the team ahead of himself
The game basically was over.
MSU was facing third down with a 24-7 lead against Illinois and time winding under three minutes. Needing seven yards, MSU quarterback Keith Nichol ran for five yards, and, letting his game sense get the best of him, kept pushing for the first down.
Nichol fell awkwardly on his non-throwing elbow.
He received word that he’d dislocated his left elbow and would have to sit out for a period of time and watch his teammates.
The physically tough Nichol later begged the coaching staff to let him compete the next week.
In a career that already had undergone a major change, Nichol didn’t know at the time that his hustle play at the end of the Oct. 10, 2009 game — which the Spartans won 24-14 — would set off a series of events that would lead to a more unlikely change.
“I never envisioned myself becoming a wide receiver,” Nichol said. “People joked about it because of all the measurable stuff in the weight room. They thought it could translate.
“It was rumor and joke-around stuff, but then it happened in the Valero Alamo Bowl and the coaches saw it … and we went with it and it’s worked out so far.”
Nichol told reporters after the Illinois game that he’d only suffered a sprain and would continue playing.
After aggravating it the next practice, he knew it was more serious and he missed the Spartans’ next two games.
Nichol said he was devastated not being able to play, but continued to work on his skills at quarterback.
He played in a 42-34 loss against Minnesota on Oct. 31, 2009 but only attempted one pass, before throwing a touchdown pass the following week in a 49-14 win against Western Michigan.
It took about two months after the injury before there was any serious discussion about Nichol — the sophomore Oklahoma transfer, who many thought would win the starting quarterback job last season — converting to wide receiver, but it came quickly.
The conversation came after the team’s final game against Penn State, in which Nichol was 4-for-5 for 84 yards and a touchdown pass, and the November 2009 Rather Hall incident — for which top receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham were serving suspensions.
Nichol sat down with coaches before the bowl game and discussed a potential move to wide receiver.
He agreed to make the move, and the start of a new stage in his career began.
“(The coaches) said, ‘Hey if you’re interested, that’s something you can do,’ and I jumped on it, and it’s been history ever since,” Nichol said.
Complete position switches from quarterback to wide receiver don’t happen overnight. Nichol played well in the bowl game, rushing for a 7-yard touchdown out of the wildcat formation and catching two passes for 11 yards in the Spartans’ 41-31 loss.
“I think game-time experience is what you have to have to really excel,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “As you move forward, you should get better and better and better as you get more of that.”
After the bowl game, Nichol hit the weight room and continued to bulk up. Already possessing significant muscle for a quarterback, Nichol was building up to play a position he’d never played before in his life, and needed to rely on a lot of people to help him with the process.
“His transition’s going great,” junior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham said. “He’s an athletic guy, so it really doesn’t take much. … As far as all of us, we just kept him in line and taught him some formations, but he’s got it now, he’s doing pretty good.”
He found help from the wide receivers, Cousins and the coaching staff, but there was one player who stood out.
“It started with Blair (White),” Nichol said. “He had his hand around me the whole time. In a lot of ways, I feel like we’re similar football players.
“He’s an amazing football player, and I’m nowhere near where he was at now, but in how we play we’re kind of similar.”
White, who now plays for the Indianapolis Colts in the National Football League, led MSU in receiving last year. Despite White’s graduation, the Spartans returned three veterans, which would provide a logjam at the position this year.
Nichol played wide receiver in the spring and impressed a lot of people with his pass-catching ability, catching three passes for 43 yards in the Green-White Spring Game. His leaping ability stood out from other receivers as it’s something he’s possessed since he was a kid.
“(People) like to talk about leaping ability and explosion off the line, and that’s something I’ve been blessed with,” Nichol said. “Catching the ball was never that tough for me, it just came naturally.”
Some of Nichol’s physical skills — his size and speed — were honed through the natural progression of time.
“In high school I didn’t know if I was a good enough player to play receiver at a Division 1 level, but I kept working out day in and day out and I kept working out to gain muscle and speed,” Nichol said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten faster. I’m certainly much faster and bigger now, and that’s a big thanks to the weightlifting staff and all the speed training that’s been around here.”
Nichol, now a junior, started the season as a co-starter at wide receiver with Dell. Nichol showed off his leaping ability in the Spartans’ season-opening win against Western Michigan on Sept. 4, making a leaping 20-yard touchdown catch in traffic in the Spartans’ win.
Since that game, he’s caught only two passes with a loaded group of pass-catchers and a commitment to the running game. Nevertheless, he knows his chances are coming.
“It’s all part of schemes and taking what the defense gives you,” Nichol said. “You don’t see a guy go off for 10-plus catches in this system. That’s fine. We’re winning football games.”
Dantonio said he’s happy with Nichol’s progression, but that he’ll improve with game experience.
“He’s extremely powerful, catches the ball well, and he’s going to be a factor in all games this year,” Dantonio said.
Nichol’s will to improve can be seen in the way he critiques himself every play. In the Spartans’ 30-17 win against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 11, Nichol didn’t have any receptions. But what caught the attention of his father, Gary, was how he was talking about the blocks he made.
“He’s the ultimate team player,” Gary Nichol said. “He’s very much of the mindset that it’s about winning championships.”
Nichol said he loves the physicality of the game and winning one-on-one battles with his opponents. His teammates have taken note of his desire to play from the start to the finish of a play.
“He’s done a great job on his blocking, which the media or fans don’t see so much,” Cousins said. “He’s done a tremendous job blocking down the field so we can rush for 200 yards a game.”
Part of what has allowed Nichol to become a prominent wide receiver is his understanding of the game. Nichol was a successful dual-threat quarterback at Lowell High in his hometown of Lowell, Mich., then began his college career at Oklahoma before transferring to MSU after one season.
Nichol sat out the 2008 season because of NCAA transfer rules, then entered last year in a competition with Cousins for starting quarterback. Cousins ultimately took the majority of the snaps, but Nichol was able to learn much of the offense as a quarterback.
That made it easier to know where he’s supposed to be on the field.
“I’ve always been a football player first and a quarterback second, and it’s working out,” Nichol said. “I think as a quarterback, you understand overall schemes and maybe certain players a little bit, but now as a wide receiver, you don’t look at the line to see how they’re lining up but at the defensive backs.”
Nichol said he still sees the field like a quarterback, but has grown a lot since his first game at the position in the bowl game. Still, he has a lot of room for improvement as No. 24 MSU plays against No. 11 Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium Saturday (3:30, ABC) and the rest of the conference season.
“I always think very highly of my brother,” said redshirt freshman wide receiver Kyle Nichol, Keith’s brother. “He does whatever he can to contribute to the team.”
Keith Nichol’s journey has been long and unorthodox, but through it all he’s learned a lot about himself. With a good threshold for improvement and toughness, the sky’s the limit for Nichol.
“I don’t think I could’ve predicted this for myself as a player and a person,” Nichol said.
“I’ve grown tremendously in both. I’ve grown more as a person than as a player. It tests how much you love the game.”