PULLMAN – Considering the sheer volume of footballs thrown their way, the wide receivers in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense tend to require more instruction and attention than those anywhere else in the country.
The last five college football seasons offer just a small glimpse of that. In each, Washington State’s receivers and running backs have reeled in more passes than anybody else in the FBS. In both 2014 and ’15, the Cougars caught more than 500 passes – at least 100 more than the next-highest team. Although WSU hauled in only 487 passes last season, that total was still 80 more than second-place New Mexico State.
So Leach allocates his program’s resources accordingly, employing two assistants to mentor his busy and productive army of pass-catchers – one dedicated to the inside receivers, one to the outside receivers.
For the past three years, the coaches occupying those roles have been Dave Nichol and (insert name here).
Nichol, a former graduate assistant of Leach’s at Texas Tech, was hired in 2016 to coach the Cougars’ outside receivers. He switched to the inside receivers in 2017 and will work with that crew again this season. But in each of his three seasons at WSU, the man working opposite him has been different.
Lest you think that’s become an uncomfortable trend for Nichol – seeing a co-receivers coach leave after each season – the 40-year-old assistant guarantees he’s been a benefactor, while conceding it can also be tough to see a colleague go.
“You get to learn,” he said. “I learn little things from all of them.”
Nichol arrived in 2016 with JaMarcus Shephard, who was assigned by Leach to coach the Cougars’ inside receivers. But Shephard left after one season to become the sole wide receivers coach, and co-offensive coordinator, at Purdue.
Leach then turned to Toledo receivers coach Derek Sage, who worked with WSU’s inside receivers during spring camp before Leach made a flip in the fall, deciding his pass-catchers would get a best-of-both-worlds experience if Nichol could share his intel with the inside receivers and Sage could pass on his knowledge to the outside receivers.
But after one season in Pullman, Sage jumped at an opportunity to join Chip Kelly’s staff at UCLA, where he’s now the Bruins’ tight ends coach. Leach acted quickly to hire Western Kentucky quarterbacks coach Steve Spurrier Jr., who brings impressive football lineage and more than 20 years of coaching experience to the Cougars.
The one constant has been Nichol, who’s worked meticulously to soak up tips and teaching points from all three of the co-receiver coaches who’ve worked next to him.
“From coach Sage, quite frankly a lot about releases,” Nichol said. “Specific stuff, when it comes to just releasing, which he had to do quite a bit obviously being on the outside more.
“And then just some scheme stuff from JaMarcus, not necessarily stuff we do but when you’re kind of in the office hanging out now and again, just some of the systems he’s been in, other plays, frankly.
“Then coach Spurrier, I think I’m a positive guy but my players would probably say not, but his positivity has rubbed off on me. He’s pretty happy. When he wakes up, when he goes to bed. Just get a smile on your face.”
There’s plenty of give-and-take. Nichol is often quizzed by his colleagues, too. He’s spent more time with Leach’s offense than any of them.
“I learn from them, but they’ll be like, ‘What exactly is this?’ ” Nichol said, “and so just being a GA for coach way back then and now, just helping them figure stuff out.”
Spurrier’s family has yet to make a permanent move to the Palouse, so the first-year WSU assistant has taken a spare bedroom in Nichol’s home for the time being.
“I like Dr Pepper and water and he likes his stuff,” Nichol said. “We just sit there and watch –we watch football. We’re cool, but that’s what we do.”
Nichol jokes that his two-bedroom residence won’t be able to house Spurrier’s family when they arrive. Spurrier and his wife have seven chidren, including a set of triplets and twins.
“He’s got his own bed, he’s got his own bathroom , it’s a heckuva deal,” Nichol said. “He’s got seven kids, so they can’t all stay here.”
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