There was no watershed moment for Keith Nichol and his Michigan State coaches.
Nichol's transition from quarterback to wide receiver was gradual, and spawned out of necessity.
The November residence hall assault left Michigan State without six wide receivers, including key contributors Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, for the Alamo Bowl. Nichol, who had competed for playing time with Kirk Cousins at quarterback but looked more and more like a backup, began working with the wideouts in bowl practice.
"We didn’t really have a huge meeting about it," Nichol said. "It was just unspoken, like, ‘Hey, if you’re doing well at this, we’re going to keep you there. If we don’t see you progressing or anything, we're going to put you back at QB permanently.'"
Nichol made progress at wide receiver, just like everyone knew he would. Almost every team has a player that simply needs to get on the field, regardless of position, because of his natural skills and athleticism. Nichol always seemed to be that player for Michigan State.
It's a role that can lead to mixed emotions. Being told that you're too good to sit on the bench is somewhat of a backhanded compliment: You're more than good enough to play, just not at the position where you'd like.
Nichol, after all, had transferred to Michigan State from Oklahoma with an eye on the starting quarterback position. He was buried behind some Bradford guy at OU.
But as a future at wide receiver came more and more into focus, Nichol never blinked.
"I’ve always told coach [Mark] Dantonio I’m a football player first and a quarterback second," Nichol said. "I just want to be on the field and help this team win, whether that's special teams, wideout, QB, defense, it doesn’t even matter to me. It can be hard, if you don’t feel like you have a key role, sometimes you can feel unmotivated. But I never really felt that.
"They've always found ways to get me on the field and everything, and I've instilled my trust in them."
The trust is mutual, as Nichol has been listed as one of Michigan State's starting wide receivers on the spring depth chart. Dell and Cunningham both were reinstated for spring ball and are listed as backups, but the coaches clearly have big plans for Nichol.
The junior remains as the team's backup quarterback but will spend 70-80 percent of his time this spring at wideout.
"He's an outstanding athlete, big body, can run, quick change of direction, can jump, is tough," Dantonio said. "So he needs to get on the football field for us."
Nichol had two receptions for 11 yards in the Alamo Bowl, and he spent the winter months adjusting his body to the wide receiver position. He had always focused on leaning out and reducing his body fat, but the process accelerated after the switch.
He added 5-7 pounds of muscle, and reduced his body fat from around nine percent to around seven percent. Nichol checks in this spring at 6-2 and 220 pounds.
“I feel the biggest, the strongest and the fastest as I’ve ever felt," he said. "I tested the best I have ever. My shuttle [run] time was sub 4 [seconds], 3.96. My vertical went up, broad jump went up, everything. I feel great, I feel healthy, I feel fast and strong.
"I feel like the best athlete I’ve ever been right now."
Nichol is already being compared to Spartans wideout Blair White, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 who ranked second in the league with 990 receiving yards. Nichol, a close friend of White's, knows he has huge shoes to fill but said the comparisons are encouraging.
With both Dell and Cunningham back, and Keshawn Martin poised for a huge 2010 season, Michigan State could boast the Big Ten's deepest wide receiving corps. Nichol's transition should be eased by his knowledge of the quarterback spot and his familiarity with Cousins, as the two worked together throughout 2009.
"I understand where I’m supposed to be and why," he said. "I understand the concepts of what I’m doing. If I’m running a corner, I’m clearing out for somebody else if the ball’s not coming to me. I understand what a quarterback appreciates and what might make the offense run better.
"Certainly by talking and communicating, and by me being in the position [Cousins] was in, it helps out a lot."