Originally appeared on http://newsok.com/article/3086528
OU’s Nichol learned QB skills throwing to buddies in a horse barn during snowy Michigan winters
By Blake Jackson
When Gary Nichol first pried open the great, aluminum doors, he didn’t know his sons would return with the frost each winter to hone their skills in the dust.
After all, the building across the street wasn’t intended for playing quarterback. It was built for riding.
Under the fluorescent light of the arena, words like “juke” and “footwork” carried an entirely different meaning. Saddles and stirrups littered the edges of the pen.
Not a pigskin in sight — save the swine themselves — until Gary Nichol arrived with his boys.
“There is not a whole lot you can do outside during the winter in Michigan,” said Nichol. “When Kyle and Keith started getting into football, they needed some place to play when the weather got bad.
“We didn’t realize what it would turn into.”
A warm haven in the dead of winter. A proving ground for a group of future state football champions. The stage where young Keith Nichol — currently prohibited from speaking with the media — fashioned a skill set that has led the true freshman to the center of the quarterback competition at the University of Oklahoma.
Nichol family values
Gary Nichol began bringing his sons to the barn when Keith was in seventh grade.
The boys had taken an interest in football, and Gary felt obliged to cultivate that interest as best he could.
The Nichol family always worked that way.
When Keith and Kyle got into fishing at an early age, Gary and Patrice (Keith’s mother) bought fishing equipment for family outings at the lake.
Soon after the boys became interested in motocross, the family outfitted itself with dirt bikes.
Later, the Nichols did the same with four-wheelers.
“Our family, the four of us, we just kind of migrate through things together,” Gary said.
So it seemed entirely natural for Gary — who oversees delivery and transportation for Steelcase, one of the nation’s largest office furniture manufacturers — to approach the owner of a neighboring indoor riding arena with somewhat of an odd request.
He needed a place to play catch with his sons when the bitter winter invariably shut down football in the Great Lake State.
“There wasn’t any heat or anything,” Gary said. “But in Michigan, if you can get out of the wind and the weather, you’re much better off.”
Learning the system
At first, it was just the Nichols, their camcorder and a football.
Keith and Kyle would throw. Gary would coach. And Patrice would alternate between videographer and ball girl.
Soon, came a stereo. Then, a “game” clock.
Gary grew in his understanding of quarterbacking technique.
He began fashioning targets out of cardboard. He rigged a pulley system from one end of the barn to the other.
At the pull of a rope, the cardboard target would race down the zip line away from whichever Nichol boy was playing quarterback at the time.
Somehow, Gary thought, Keith and Kyle were going to learn to throw to moving targets.
“I couldn’t run fast enough, so I figured the targets would help,” he said. “But Keith and Kyle threw so hard it would just destroy them.”
Nothing would substitute for a true wide receiver. For a route-runner. For flesh and blood.
Fortunately, Keith knew just how to find it.
Building ‘the Barn Boys’
It only took a couple of phone calls.
Turns out, Keith and Kyle Nichol weren’t the only Lowell youngsters looking for a semi-warm place to feed their football fix during the offseason.
Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings were reserved for barn football. The first year, a solid six players showed up every session. Most of them were receivers.
Only Keith and Kyle were allowed to throw the ball.
“The ceiling in the barn was only 14- or 16-feet high, and there were lights hanging down,” Gary said. “Not everyone is a quarterback. We didn’t want to break anything.”
Numbers grew steadily through the second year. Soon, more than 15 players regularly attended the 2-hour sessions.
Gary began calling the troupe “The Barn Boys.” The other players became like extended family to the Nichols.
Patrice even planned to make T-shirts.
But there was a problem.
“The Barn Boys” were out-growing their barn.
“We’d never done anything with the football kids before,” said Phil Nauta, owner of a larger, second barn where Keith Nichol and the Lowell kids began to practice.
Nauta and his wife participated by shagging balls and making cookies for the players.
“Gary approached me, and I liked the idea,” Nauta said. “We’d let horse-riding kids use it, so why not let these kids use it? It was unique.”
Stable births a stallion
After the first few weeks at the new arena, “The Barn Boys” no longer worried about who would show up.
It was a given.
The players would meet and throw and build chemistry with their young quarterback. And when the time was right, Keith Nichol would lead them out of the barn and onto the field of play.
“Keith had no greater growth than between his freshman and sophomore year,” said Lowell High coach Noel Dean. “They did a lot of things out of season, even in spite of the weather. The great thing about Keith was, he wasn’t allergic to hard work.”
In August 2004, the countless hours spent “playing catch” in the barn began to pay off.
Keith was rewarded with Lowell’s starting quarterback job as a sophomore.
He began his record-setting career by leading the Red Arrows to a blowout upset of nationally ranked Grandville High.
Three months later, “The Barn Boys” were state champions.
Dean maintains Keith’s greatest mental strength — reading defenses — was learned away from the riding arena where the young quarterback cut his teeth. But years of playing in the barn left a permanent, physical impression on his game.
The low-arch, bullet passes Keith displayed throughout this spring’s OU scrimmages is a byproduct of forcing thousands of throws just under the barn’s flat, low ceiling.
Normally, aspiring passers attend expensive quarterback clinics to learn how to keep their throws down. But mastering one of the position’s most important techniques didn’t cost the Nichols a dime.
“No one asked for payment,” Gary Nichol said of the barn owners.
“I think they saw what was going on. A father trying whatever he can to help his sons accomplish their dreams.”
10. Keith Nichol, QB, Oklahoma
Can the two-time Michigan high school player of the year make enough progress this spring to make a serious challenge at the starting job? Nichol had a trimmed-down playbook during the spring after enrolling early. But he still stayed in the hunt with redshirt freshman Sam Bradford and junior Joey Halzle as the Sooners search for Paul Thompson‘s replacement.
Mandel writes “It’s true: OU’s quarterback stable right now borders on disastrous. None of the three contenders — redshirt freshman Sam Bradford, juco transfer Joey Hazle and true freshman Keith Nichol — were highly recruited elsewhere (though Nichol originally committed to Michigan State).”
Stewart writes, “Sure, they may start every season in the top 10, but I get the sense not too many people outside the great state of Oklahoma actually believe them to be capable of hanging in USC/LSU/Texas/Florida territory.”
The might Texas Territory? Didn’t we win the Big 12 last year? Didn’t we win the Big 12 2004? 2002?
Florida? yup the won with Urban, last year. Where do they place this decade?
NORMAN — Who will quarterback the Oklahoma football Sooners in Bedlam on Thanksgiving Saturday? Too early to say.
Who will quarterback the Soondogs against North Texas on Sept. 1? Not too early to say.
That seemed clear on a crisp March Saturday as the Sooners scrimmaged 97 plays at Owen Field. The freshman from Putnam North, who redshirted last season, seems the certain starter by process of elimination.
Joey Halzle lacks arm strength and the coaches’ confidence. Eight months ago, when Rhett Bomar crossed into the land of the lost, OU coaches didn’t even grant Halzle the courtesy of competing for the QB job. The reins immediately went to Paul Thompson, summoned back from receiver exile, and that quick decision proved prescient.
Kid Nichol is a bright prospect, but beware any quarterback still awaiting his senior prom. Nichol is miles ahead of where he’d be had he stayed in Michigan for his last semester of high school but miles behind Bradford, who has an autumn headstart.
That leaves Bradford, a rangy, raw quarterback who seems capable, at least as a rookie, of avoiding the cataclysmic mistakes that will ignite Bob Stoops’ brow.
OU coaches, of course, remain stoic on the issue.
“Definitely premature,” said QB coach Josh Heupel of the Bradford declaration.
Too early, said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.
Stoops so much as said we could be waiting until the shadow of that North Texas epic before an announcement is made.
“We don’t have a timetable,” Stoops said. “When I feel the position’s earned, we’ll say so. With these guys, with so much work to still be done, it won’t be until we’re fairly close to game time.”
Let’s be clear. This quarterback derby does not match proven stallions. These three are totally unknown, totally untested. The Sooner staff truly has no idea how these guys will perform under the spotlight.
“It’s like with Paul Thompson,” Wilson said. “Until he got out there, we didn’t know if he could handle it.”
That’s why, Wilson admitted, OU could swap quarterbacks after Sept. 1. Stoops ordered a switch in 2001 (Nate Hybl out, Jason White in) and 2005 (Thompson out, Bomar in).
But for now, Bradford seems the clear leader, with little chance of being caught until enemy foes arrive. In the scrimmage, Bradford was a clear frontrunner. Bradford played the most and played the best.
Bradford got 44 snaps to Halzle’s 34 and Nichol’s 19. No small difference. Every major scrimmage is important in getting a quarterback ready to play. Bradford completed eight of 13 passing for 114 yards. One of his two thrown interceptions came on a tipped pass.
Maybe most telling, Bradford acts the part.
“The way he’s acting and communicating and talking is growing significantly,” Wilson said. “His body language, his eyes, the way he’s talking in the huddle, looking at people, is significantly more confident, I just think because he thinks he’s doing well, has a chance to be the guy. So he’s acting like it, too.”
Do not count out Nichol, in the long run. I call him Kid Nichol after Kid Nichols, the great turn-of-the-century baseball pitcher. But Kid Nichol’s coaches are fixated on his youth.
Wilson termed Nichol “the high school kid.”
Heupel called him “the Keith Nichol kid.”
But as an early-entry enrollee, Nichol by September will be a not-so-true freshman. His campaign could accelerate.
“The high school kid’s potential is the best,” Wilson said. Better arm and better feet. But Stoops has a solid history of going with quarterbacks who avoid landmines.
“At the quarterback position, you gotta find out how not to get yourself beat, first and foremost,” said Heupel, himself quite the savvy QB.
Coaches have dumbed-down the offense for Nichol. That won’t last. Once Nichol closes the mental gap, then he has a chance to win the job. But that is down a distant road.
Come September, Sam Bradford will be the Oklahoma quarterback.
After an extended stay in Norman, Okla., because of bad weather, nationally ranked Lowell quarterback Keith Nichol prepared to return home Friday confident in his decision to switch his verbal commitment from Michigan State to Oklahoma.
Nichol’s father, Gary, said his son liked the facilities, players, staff and coaches at Oklahoma, and told head coach Bob Stoops on Thursday evening that he wanted to be a Sooner. Gary Nichol said Keith called MSU coach Mark Dantonio an hour later to inform him of his decision.
“It was right for him as a quarterback,” Gary Nichol said. “It was a great opportunity — one of the best opportunities for a quarterback in the nation.”
Gary Nichol said his family appreciated the steps Michigan State representatives took to keep them informed during the search for a new head coach, particularly basketball coach Tom Izzo. He also said Keith had great respect for Dantonio, who recruited him at Cincinnati.
Keith Nichol will enroll in January at Oklahoma, where he will have the immediate opportunity to compete for a starting spot. The Sooners are losing senior Paul Thompson and dismissed Rhett Bomar in August for violations of NCAA rules.
“He’s a player, and that’s what he wants to do,” Gary Nichol said.
Gatorade named Keith Nichol its Michigan football player of the year Friday.