Johnson: Eskimos turn to greenhorn in most important game of season
New quarterback Matt Nichols has completed just three career CFL passes
It’s all on his plate now. His responsibility. Slamming the brakes on an unsettling four-game losing skid. Making good on what shapes up as a last-chance-saloon shot at keeping hopes alive to host a playoff game at Commonwealth Stadium come November. And not insignificantly, avoiding the historical shame of being the only Eskimo team, ever, to go 0-for-September.
The wait has been two years. The sum total of his CFL stats reads: 3-of-7 passing for 74 yards and a TD.
Talk about having to grow up fast in the pros.
But, hey, Matt Nichols hasn’t been up nights, fretting and fussing, tossing and turning.
“Actually, in college I was always nervous and didn’t sleep too well before games,” admits the Eskimos’ starting quarterback tonight at McMahon Stadium. “My wife (Ali) says its actually kinda weird how this week I’ve slept the best I’ve slept in the last couple years.
“I feel great.
“I feel relaxed.
“I hope that’s a good sign.”
A couple Tylenol Nightime helps knock a fella out better than counting sheep, right?
“Actually,” he shoots back with a grin, “that’s the good thing about not playing for two years. You don’t have to take a lot of Tylenol.”
With both Kerry Joseph and Steven Jyles nicked up (but healthy enough to suit up as Nos. 2 and 3), Nichols has been conscripted to step manfully into the breach at a decidedly delicate moment in Edmonton’s 2012 season. Given the timing of the current losing skein they must feel as if the ground is starting to give way beneath them, and desperately need something, someone, to help them regain lost footing; a sense of equilibrium.
“I’ve played a lot with this guy,” says Eastern Washington teammate J.C. Sherritt, the Esks’ inspirational middle linebacker, “and I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do. His self-belief doesn’t go up and down — it just stays high. He believes in himself, so you believe in him, too. He’s awesome.
“All the great quarterbacks I’ve been around have that little extra confidence about ’em. He has it. He knows this is his shot to get on the field. That’ll be enough.”
Nichols may say he doesn’t feel like a piece of fresh meat tossed into the tiger cage; the pork chop on George Foreman’s backyard grill (even if the marauding Charleston Hughes was allegedly spotted Thursday with a napkin tucked into his shirt front, holding a knife and fork in anticipation), but he can expect pressure in his baptism as a CFL starter. From all sides. In copious quantities.
It is ever thus with unproven QBs.
“That,” he shrugged, nonplussed, “is kind of the nature of my position, I guess.
“I’ve played a lot of football in my life, so I think I have a pretty good idea of how to handle those things. Basically I’m gonna take everything that I’ve learned the last couple of years and this week of preparation, try and apply it as best I can.
“I don’t think they’re going to change too much for, you know . . . me.
“There might be a (few) growing pains. It’s been a couple years since I played a real meaningful game.
“I’ve felt comfortable all week in practice. I feel comfortable with our offence. When I got in against Hamilton (two weeks ago) it was really the first time the game really slowed down for me.”
He’s nothing if not a patient sort. Signing on initially as the No. 4 quarterback in Edmonton, the rise could hardly be described as meteoric. But the standing, the watching, the questioning and yes, the waiting, has led him to this moment.
“If this was a game that I’ve played my whole life, 11-man, U.S. football it might be a little different,” he reasons. “But as quarterback up here there’s so many things you have to adapt to, whether it’s wide-side throws, extra guy on the field, receiver waggles, 20-second play clock ... there’s a lot of things you’ve got to get used to.
“So the first couple of years, I think, it’s been really important to sit back and learn from guys like Ricky Ray and Kerry Joseph, guys that have been extremely successful in this league.”
The good news from an Eskimo standpoint this evening is that nothing significant needs re-tooling in the offensive schemes.
“I think,” says head coach Kavis Reed, “what we saw from the brief period of time in Hamilton was the byproduct of him being in the system long enough and being able to digest from the sidelines — which is sometimes the best seat in the house — what is happening and what defences are trying to do.
“So we really feel the entire playbook is open to us.”
With seven pro passes on his resume, Nichols is the green in the green and gold. It’s his responsibility now. On his plate.
“Once that first snap gets over with, I settle in and it feels like football again,” he says, “I think I’ll be just fine.
“It’s an opportunity to play a game that I love. We’re all extremely blessed to be able to play this game. Like I said, I’m excited.
“This is the first time I’ve gotten to do this in a while.”
Off his unruffled tone after the Esks arrived at McMahon Stadium to unpack on Thursday, it’s a safe bet Matt Nichols slept fine again yesterday.
He and the Eskimos can only hope his slumber tonight is as untroubled.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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