EDMONTON — After five frustrating seasons and two major injuries, Matt Nichols has the football firmly in his hands for his first legitimate shot at being the starting quarterback for the Edmonton Eskimos.
Signed as a free agent late in 2010, the six-foot-two, 215-pound Redding, Calif., native will be the man behind centre Thursday when the Eskimos entertain the Ottawa Redblacks in Edmonton’s home opener.
With Mike Reilly out another 10 weeks with the knee injury he suffered in Edmonton’s season-opening loss to Toronto, Nichols has been handed the starting job.
“My only real opportunity was 2013 when Mike and I were battling for the position and I got hurt in the first pre-season game,” Nichols after the Eskimos (0-1) final walk-through Wednesday, their first day in Commonwealth Stadium this year, having been displaced by the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“The quarterback position is one where the more you play the more comfortable you get and I haven’t really had the opportunity to play more than two games in a row my entire career. So for me it’s getting in and getting comfortable.”
Nichols has been a consummate professional as he overcame injuries and waited patiently for his first real opportunity become a CFL starter. He was stashed on the injury list in 2011 and in 2012 watched in frustration as Edmonton, after trading Ricky Ray to Toronto, felt they had to play Kerry Joseph and Steven Jyles.
He started only two games that season and the second half of the 2012 East semifinal where he suffered a dislocated ankle. A ruptured anterior cruciate knee ligament in the 2013 pre-season gave the starting job to Reilly. Last year he started four games, including the West semifinal victory over Saskatchewan.
Edmonton had its bye last week, giving Nichols time to take plenty of first-team reps and get prepared for the starting role.
“You don’t get a ton of reps with first-team guys unless you’re the starter so obviously I don’t have a lot of reps this year. But I’ve played with some of them for a few years now so I don’t think it takes much time to get the chemistry back,” said Nichols. “I’m very comfortable with them and they’re comfortable with me.”
“We’ve very confident in Matt’s game,” said veteran receiver Adarius Bowman. “He understands the opportunity that is in front of him and he’s going to take advantage of it. In the past it was always, you’re playing this week until so-and-so is back. This time it’s his show and we’re behind him all the way.”
Nichols, who has turned off his social media to avoid reading any negative comments from fans who always seem to want the QB on the bench to be playing, says he understands he may have a lot to prove to some Eskimo fans, but that goes with playing professional sports.
Getting the starting role so early in the season should be a huge advantage for him.
“A lot of my games have been in mid-season or near the end of the season when everyone else is in mid-season form and I’ve haven’t played in 2 1/2 months,” said Nichols. “It’s easier for me at the beginning of the season when everyone’s getting their feet wet and figuring who they are as a team. I’m able to do it now rather than jumping in mid-season.
“These guys trust me, I trust them. No one on this team expects any kind of falloff at this position.”
Ottawa is off to a hot start under the guidance of Henry Burris, who has four TDs and 559 passing yards to lead the Redblacks to a 2-0 record.