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Eagles’ tandem rolls on

Nichols, Boyce have been Eastern’s dynamic duo

Aaron Boyce has never been one to buy into hype.

So when the former standout wide receiver at Kentwood High School in Kent first arrived at Eastern Washington University four years ago and started hearing about the hot-shot quarterback the Eagles had recruited, he was skeptical.

“I remember hearing on my recruiting trip that we got this quarterback coming from California and he’s supposed to be all this and all that, and he’s s-o-o-o good,” Boyce recalled. “So when I came here, I was like, ‘OK, so where is this kid that him and me are supposed to be so good together?’ ”

Aaron Boyce, meet Matt Nichols.

“We actually met a couple of times early in camp that fall and just kind of talked,” Boyce said of his early encounters with Nichols, the Eagles’ record-setting senior quarterback from Cottonwood, Calif.

But what Boyce remembers most is the first pass Nichols tossed his way when they were both first-year freshman serving on the scout team in the fall of 2005.

“I was running about 40 yards up the sideline and he hit me right in stride,” Boyce said. “I thought right then, ‘Okay, this guy might be the real deal.’ ”

Turns out, he was.

And in the four years since that first connection, the two have developed a deep and enduring friendship that has served as a foundation for many of their considerable accomplishments as four-year starters for the Eagles.

“They’re best friends and they’re together almost all the time, on and off the field,” Eastern’s second-year head coach Beau Baldwin said of Nichols and Boyce, who have developed into one of the most productive throw-and-catch combos in school history. “They’re a couple of football junkies who love watching extra film and doing all the little things you need to do to be the best.

“They’ve worked together so much for so long that in games they can almost look at each other and know what the other is thinking.”

“It’s almost scary how much on the same page we are,” Boyce said. “It’s kind of weird, actually, because when Matt checks to something during a game, it’s almost always the same play I wanted.”

There are instances during games when Boyce will signal a route he wants to run back to Nichols – even while Nichols is in the middle of calling cadence at the line of scrimmage.

“He loves telling people about that,” Nichols said. “That’s part of him just wanting to be the quarterback, but more often than not, it seems to work out.”

During his stay at Eastern, Nichols has thrown for 9,267 yards and 67 touchdowns since taking over as the leader in Eastern’s spread passing game, and holds the school record for career passing attempts (1,211) and completions (741). He also remains on track to surpass former Walter Payton Award winner Erik Meyer as the Eagles’ career leader in passing yards, total offense and touchdown passes.

Boyce, during that same span, has caught 191 passes – the second-highest total in school history – for 2,855 yards and 24 touchdowns, including two in last year’s 31-16 win over Big Sky Conference rival Northern Colorado, which opens conference play against the Eagles on Saturday at Woodward Field.

Scott Downing became UNC’s head coach three years ago when Nichols and Boyce were in their first season as starters and counts himself among those who will not mind seeing the curtain drop on the Nichols-Boyce Era.

“I actually thought they left last year, and I was hoping that was true,” Downing said. “Will we be glad to finally see them go? Certainly. I’ll even pay for their bus tickets out of town if they want to leave.”

Along with their love for football, Nichols and Boyce share a fondness for video games and “stupid, dumb” movies. They are not above reciting lines to each other from a couple of their favorite flicks – “Step Brothers” and “Gladiator” – during games.

Nichols is engaged to be married in March, and Boyce will be a member of the wedding party. But despite their friendship, Nichols insists he does not play favorites when it comes to selecting targets on the football field.

Still, senior tight end Nathan Overbay couldn’t pass on a chance to take a dig at the relationship between Boyce, who wears jersey No. 9, and Nichols after switching his jersey number from 81 to 19 earlier this fall.

“The big joke right now,” Nichols said, “is that Nate started going to the tanning booth and then switched his number in hopes that I might see the ‘9’ on his jersey flash across the field sometimes and throw him the ball.

“But, really, I live with Nate and I roomed with Tony (Davis) when we were in the dorms our first year here, so I’ve got a very personal relationship with all my receivers. It’s just that A.B. is always the one who makes me stay after practice and throw extra routes, even when I’m tired.”

Doing those extra little things, it would seem, is just another part of the friendship that allowed Aaron Boyce to overcome his initial skepticism of the hot-shot QB from California.

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