Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson considers himself lucky that he coaches quarterback Chris Nickson and not against him.
“I’d hate to have to defend him,” Johnson said.
VU’s hopes rest upon Nickson’s talents in 2007. If Johnson is correct in his assessment, the Commodore offense could rank among the best in the Southeastern Conference.
In Nickson, Vanderbilt has a multi-skilled quarterback who rode through peaks and valleys last season as a first-year starter. When he was good, he was electrifying. When he was bad, the Commodores had little chance of competing, much less winning.
As the 2006 progressed, Nickson began to sparkle. He fumbled less. He passed for 250 yards or more in three of the final four games. He rolled up 517 yards of total offense against Kentucky.
Nickson seemed to learn his lessons well as his baptism into college football came to an end in November.
“I’ve been there before. I know what that feels like,” VU offensive lineman Chris Williams said. “To be at quarterback, that’s a whole other level. This year, he’s way more comfortable in the huddle and has taken control of the team.”
If Nickson has, in fact, become the team leader, it’s been by example.
Most evenings, he’s among the last players to leave the practice field, often throwing extra passes with anyone willing to catch them. In Nickson’s mind, nothing he could say would establish him as a team leader.
It’s all about production.
“I haven’t really tried to assert myself,” Nickson said. “I just want to be a playmaker. With that comes leadership. When you make plays, guys cling to you and respond to you.”
Nickson made plenty of plays in 2006. His 2,779 yards of total offense last year was the fourth-best individual total in school history.
Former VU star quarterback Jay Cutler had only one season as a Commodore in which he tallied more yards – 3,288 in 2005.
Along the way, Nickson helped Vanderbilt average 22.0 points per game, the second highest total at the school since 1999. VU’s average of 351.0 yards per game was the fourth most since 1988.
The Commodores are expecting similar results this season, and perhaps even more.
Five senior starters are expected to start on the offensive line. All-world receiver Earl Bennett is 48 catches away from becoming the SEC’s all-time career leader. The running game will get a boost from the return of tailback Jeff Jennings, who missed the 2006 season while rehabilitating from knee surgery.
The key, however, will be Nickson. Vanderbilt coaches know it and plan to place even more responsibility on the junior quarterback.
“When a quarterback understands your offense and what you’re trying to achieve right when he comes out of the huddle, that gives you a lot more leeway with what you can do with him and what you can ask your offense to do,” Johnson said.
“That’s the key thing. We’ll give him an opportunity to make decisions at the line of scrimmage maybe that we’re not making from the press box. Chris has demonstrated that he has that kind of ability.”
Near the end of last season, continuing through spring practice and into preseason training camp this month, coaches say Nickson improved in every area: ball security, reading defenses, knowing when to run and when to pass.
“We saw Chris do all those things,” Johnson said. “We think he’s ready to go.”
Where he goes, the Commodores are likely to follow.