Matt Nichols put his name in the Eastern Washington University football record book much earlier than he had expected.
And for reasons he would just as soon forget.
As a redshirt freshman, rushed into the role of Eastern’s starting quarterback in fall 2006 – while dealing with a cast of equally young and untested wide receivers – Nichols had 17 of his 259 pass attempts picked off, equaling a single-season school record first set by Steve White in 1983 and matched by Jon Snider in 1987.
“There’s a big learning curve, I guess, when you play as that young a player at my position,” Nichols said, when asked to look back on his first shaky season as the trigger man of the Eagles’ offense. “In any event, it’s definitely something that has helped keep me grounded, even to this day.”
As humbling as that might have been, it certainly didn’t destroy the self confidence of the then-19-year-old rookie quarterback, who has since established himself as perhaps the best to step under center in an Eastern uniform.
Granted, there are those – including Nichols – who contend that such a distinguished title belongs to Nichols’ predecessor, Erik Meyer, the 2005 Walter Payton Award winner, who left Eastern that following spring as the owner of nearly every meaningful school passing record.
But going strictly by the numbers, there has never been an Eagles quarterback as productive as the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Nichols, who – because of a scheduling quirk – will be among 16 seniors making their final appearance at Woodward Field on Saturday. Eastern will entertain Montana State in a Big Sky Conference homecoming that kicks off at 1:05 p.m.
Since taking over as the Eagles’ starting quarterback in the second game of the 2006 season, Nichols has started 40 of 41 games, having had his string of 32 straight starts snapped last fall when senior Alex Smart was given that courtesy in the home finale against Northern Arizona.
During his 42-game career, the former prep standout at West Valley High School in Cottonwood, Calif., has completed 856 of 1,390 passes for 10,627 yards and 76 touchdowns and replaced Meyer as Eastern’s career leader in passing yards, total offense (11,261 yards) and nearly every other important statistical category for quarterbacks.
Yet Nichols downplays most of his impressive numbers, claiming he is most proud of the 42 – as in games played.
“I feel fortunate to have played in that many games and still be playing,” he said. “That’s one thing about Erik – he didn’t become a starter until his sophomore year, so he didn’t play in as many games as me. And that’s why, even though my numbers are better than his in terms of passing yards and total yards, I’d never consider myself better than him.
“He’s still one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen play in person, so it’s pretty awesome just to be compared to him.”
Eastern’s second-year head coach Beau Baldwin, who was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during Meyer’s stay in Cheney, was also Nichols’ position coach in 2006. He sidesteps any direct comparisons between the two, but is quick to say he is not surprised by how far Nichols has come since his rocky rookie season.
“First off, I knew how talented he was when he was young,” Baldwin said. “He had all the tools, but sometimes talent alone doesn’t get you all that far – especially at the quarterback position.
“But then you started to see all the intangibles. Even in that first season, people have to remember that had he been playing with a veteran group of receivers, those (interception) numbers wouldn’t have been what they were. He was a much better quarterback, even back then, than his numbers indicated. And the growth he’s made since then has been remarkable.”
On Saturday, Nichols will make his final start at Woodward Field, with the Eagles traveling to Seattle to take on Portland State at Quest Field the following weekend and closing their regular season with road games at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.
That fact, Nichols said, has not slapped him in the face – as he expects it will late Saturday afternoon.
“It’s one of those things where I kind of talk about it now and I don’t feel real emotional or anything,” he said. “But I think it’s really going to hit me as soon as the last second ticks off the clock on Saturday and I realize it’s the last time I’ll be walking off that field in an Eastern uniform.”
Considering all that he has accomplished – including leading the Eagles to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs as a sophomore in 2007, when he was also named the Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP – there might be some who wonder whether Nichols made the right choice in coming to play at Eastern at what was formerly known as the Division I-AA level.
Nichols insists he has no regrets about his career – except not beating Montana.
“I think that’s a main goal of every football player who comes here,” he said. “But other than that, I can’t think of many quarterbacks who get to start for four years at the Division-I level, and Eastern gave me that chance when a lot of other teams wouldn’t. I wouldn’t trade my experience at Eastern for anything.
“But it would make it even better if I can end my home career by beating Montana State on Saturday.”