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September 4, 2010EAST LANSING - It didn't long for former quarterback Keith Nichol to prove that he belonged as present wide receiver Keith Nichol Saturday afternoon during Michigan State's season-opening 38-14 victory over Western Michigan.
At the 12:14 mark of the second quarter, the 6-foot-2, 222-pound former signal caller in-waiting went high between two Bronco defenders in the back of the endzone to pull in his first career receiving TD, courtesy of the arm of MSU junior quarterback Kirk Cousins - the teammate that beat him out for the starting job last season.
The pass, from Cousins - who had to get rid of the ball quickly on the 1st-and-10 play in the face of a furious pass rush - looked as though it would sail safely through the back of endzone for an incompletion.
But Nichol had other ideas, contorting his body with a midair adjustment to haul in the pass between two surprised Western Michigan defensive backs.
"That was all Keith on that one," said Cousins of the TD that gave MSU a 21-7 lead. "I got a little pressure and needed to get rid of the ball and (thought) it would go out of the back of the endzone if he didn't catch it. (So) that was all him. It was basically 2-on-1 (coverage) right there, and Keith just made a great play."
Added Nichol: "I knew (Cousins) didn't have a whole lot of options in terms of where else to go with the ball so I just tried to make a play and it worked out for us," said Nichol, who has dedicated the season to his deceased grandmother. "It was a big momentum changer (because) I think we were a little sluggish out there, nothing really felt right and then we just got it rolling from there so it was just nice to be able to make that play."
In the process, Nichol may have calmed the worries of those wondering if he could make the transition smoothly.
"I think a lot of people were wondering how I'd do today," he said. "In my eyes, I had a good or average day and there's so many things still out there that I have to improve on but it was nice to be able make some plays out there. It was a surreal feeling and I can't explain how calming it almost felt (but) it was just a great weight off (my) shoulder, so it felt good."
The play, which brought oohs and aahs from the sellout crowd of 75,769, signified Nichol's arrival as an integral part of MSU's receiving corps.
"He had a great catch down, back in the endzone,'' MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said. "I thought he blocked well. He's a 220-pound plus guy out there that can be very, very physical."
Nichol had no trouble putting that physicality into action during the Spartans' third scoring drive late in the second quarter.
On Edwin Baker's second touchdown of the day, Nichol walled off his defender with a stand-up block that allowed Baker to easily cutback and jog in for the 7-yard score. Prior to that, on the previous play, it was Nichol's block that pushed his man three yards back, allowing Keshawn Martin to rip off a 12-yard gain on 1st-and-10.
"He just did what we've been practicing," said Baker, who picked up a career-high 119 yards on 17 carries. He did his job and pushed the man inside, and read it real well."
Nichol just took his day and his all-around contributions in stride.
"You're out there to score touchdowns," he said matter-of-factly. "When you're part of that and you feel like you're playing a role in that, it's exciting when we succeed."
Nichol ended his Spartan Stadium debut with two catches for 32 and a touchdown. He opened the 2010 season with the potential to be like his mentor Blair White, who become one of Cousins' most dependable pass-catching options last season.
And while Nichol looked like a natural for most of his first regular season start, his transition to that comfort level really began when he accepted the move to wide receiver prior to MSU Valero Alamo Bowl appearance last season.
With the Spartans short on receivers because of suspensions handed down after the Rather Hall fracas, Nichol stepped up and stepped in to learn the split end position.
He caught two balls for 11 yards in that 41-31 loss in San Antonio to end the season, while adding a seven yard score on a run early in the third quarter.
It seems that was only the beginning for the Lowell(Mich.) native, who competed for the top QB spots at both Oklahoma and MSU.
"(As a quarterback), you expect anything that can touch the wide receiver's hands to be caught, but there's so much more to it than (what) you see as a quarterback," Nichol explained. "There's definitely a lot more to the position and I appreciate that now."