Grayling’s Nicholas Taking Talents to Albion
After spending his first three years on the Grayling varsity football team as the Vikings’ starting middle linebacker on defense and backing up starting quarterback Cam Summers, it was finally time for Justin Nicholas to take the reins of the Vikings’ offense.
He had some big shoes to fill.
In keeping with the quarterback tradition established by those who had preceded him at the position, Summers set several school records, including career passing yards (5,597), touchdown passes (52) and total touchdowns (74).
Nicholas, meanwhile, patiently bided his time, seeing time at running back and defensive end, while seeing only limited duty as the backup quarterback, usually coming in when the outcome was already settled in the fourth quarter.
But, it was enough of a taste to fill him with a desire to earn the starting role once Summers took his talents to the collegiate ranks after leading the Vikings to another playoff berth last fall.
Originally, the 227-pounder had hoped to walk on as fullback at a smaller Division II or III school.
That changed after this season, when he raised many eyebrows with his incredible, record-setting performance at quarterback. He was a sensation the second he took his first snap from center.
Nicholas finished his career as Grayling’s all-time leader with 3,188 yards passing, breaking the mark of 3,146 previously established by former Vikings’ all-state quarterback Jimmy Osga in 2008.
He scored 40 touchdowns this season, 28 through the air and another 12 on the ground, surpassing Osga’s mark of 35, and his seven touchdown passes eclipsed the previous mark of seven set by Summers three years ago, and his 623 yards passing, also against the Huskies, broke Osga’s 507 in one game in 2008.
Several schools expressed interest in having him play quarterback for them after seeing those numbers, but it was Albion that eventually won out as Nicholas signed a National Letter of Intent to compete for a starting job for the Britons next year.
“Playing football in college is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid,” Nicholas said. “I’m not going there to be a backup. No one goes to college to be second string.
“I know the competition will be intense. I mean, they’ve signed a bunch of other quarterbacks to bring in. That’s okay. I like the challenge. I’m excited about it. I want to go out there and show them what I’m capable of.
“Yes, I’ll have to work for it, and prove myself to them. But, all I want is a chance to go out and showcase my talents. I ran the same kind of offense at Grayling that the Britons do, so I’m coming in with a lot of confidence in being able to handle it without any trouble.”
The Britons went 4-6 last season after a 1-9 campaign in 2016, including an 0-6 mark in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA), so the Britons are looking to get back to their usual winning ways, and hope Nicholas can help them get there.
He’s no stranger to overcoming adversity, and showing great resilience.
Nicholas quarterbacked the Vikings’ junior varsity as a freshman, before being promoted to the varsity as a sophomore and played at middle linebacker while Summers took over at quarterback.
Following a solid performance during the summer, when he displayed the ability to throw the deep ball in 7-on-7 drills, coach Tim Sanchez, who stepped down as the head coach earlier this year, gave him the keys to the offense.
“When he gave me the reins, it was go time,” Nicholas said. “I had no other desire than to help the team to a winning season, and get us back into the playoffs. But, then, it just took off.
“Things just clicked right away, and it kept getting better. Coach Sanchez deserves a lot of credit, because he really worked with me, helping me with the shorter passes, emphasizing the accuracy needed on the intermediate throws.
“I had always struggled with the shorter passes. The long throws, or deep bombs, always seemed to find their targets. I’d see a receiver down field and get enough air under the ball. It never failed to get where I wanted it to go.”
Nicholas said Sanchez also focused on improving his footwork, teaching him how to back pedal more quickly, and better position his feet so he wouldn’t overthrow the intended target.
He also worked on putting a lighter touch on the ball on the shorter throws, and not burning in a scorcher his receivers had difficulty catching.
But, nothing came easy for Nicholas.
Following a record-setting 66-20 victory over Roscommon, when Nicholas hooked up with Nick Hunter on a 71-yard touchdown pass, on the way to a 4-0 start, the Bucks lost three straight — all of them to teams that made the playoffs last year — which left them needing to win their last two games to qualify for the playoffs.
Despite playing on a sore ankle, and with his top two receivers down with injuries, passed for 623 yards, which ranks second all-time in the Michigan High School Athletic Association record books, as the Vikings rallied for a 58-46 victory over Benzie Centrral in Week Eight. He completed 39 passes in the game, tied for third on the MHSAA all-time list.
It snapped a three-game losing streak, and kept the Vikings’ playoff hopes alive. They would qualify for the playoffs the following week with a win over Kalkaska. Grayling lost to Reed City, 54-8 in the first round of the playoffs.
Nicholas has left a legacy at Grayling. He’s hoping to do the same at Albion.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. Gielczyk can be reached at email@example.com for story ideas.