Willie Nicholas has to admit it still seems strange to hear “starting at quarterback for Mooseheart” followed by his name.
Looking forward to his third start in Thursday night’s Northeastern Athletic Conference game against visiting North Shore, the unassuming senior signal caller may still be pinching himself to be sure it’s real.
“Coming into my junior year last season, coach (Gary Urwiler) told us he wanted to have quarterback tryouts because he knew the following year he would have to find someone to replace (three-year starter) Jon Hart,” said Nicholas, who decided to take a plunge.
“To be honest, I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I came down and tried out. It wasn’t like I had this dream to be a quarterback.”
He played some JV games there last year, but when it came to varsity, he continued seeing limited action as a backup linebacker on a talented team.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Nicholas won the starting job this year in preseason camp and has done quite well for himself. He’s helped lead Mooseheart to a pair of wins, 45-6 win over Hiawatha (1-1) and 46-17 over Westminster Christian (0-2). Country Day comes into the Thursday 7 p.m. kickoff 0-2.
“I really came into this year with a lot of mixed feelings because we had lost so many good seniors to graduation,” Urwiler said. “It’s the joy and challenge for us as a small football program, watching that maturation process and then seeing new players come in and try to carry on the legacy.”
Directing Urwiler’s spread attack, Nicholas has completed an area-best 79 percent of his passes — 22 of 28 — for 367 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
“Really?” said Nicholas, when asked about his completion percentage. “I didn’t know that.”
Then proving he’d mastered Interviewee 101, he added, “I’m not focused on stats. I’m just taking it one game at a time.”
Urwiler said he’s not throwing too much at the Eugene, Ore., native who has attended school at Mooseheart since he was eight and remains a big Oregon Ducks’ fan.
“We may not have faced the toughest part of our (regular season) schedule yet, but to see Willie doing things and see him having that success has been a lot of fun,” said Urwiler. “We’re not putting the game on his shoulders and saying ‘It’s all on you.’ He still hasn’t had all that many reps at quarterback.”
With a talented running back like Joe Feemorlu (24 carries, 215 yards rushing), a big-play guy like Tarry Johnson (5-126 rushing for a 25.2 average) and talented receivers like JJ Odunski (8-143), Hameed Odunewu (6-79), Freddie Okito (5-43) and Jacob Ranum (2-97) around him, managing the offense has been the focus.
His arm strength doesn’t match his predecessor, but may not have to. He’s also been “running a little bit (averaging 6.3 yards-per-carry), which gives him just another dimension,” said Urwiler, noting that with Odunski and Odunewu each being 6-4 or 6-5 with the ability to jump, helps the inexperienced QB, too.
“It is nice,” Nicholas said of the big targets. “I’m not necessarily a great quarterback, but I’m throwing to great receivers.
“The biggest challenge for me has been staying calm. As a linebacker, you’re always running around the field trying to hit someone. Seeing it from this side of the ball is something very different, especially when you’re under pressure.”