EDMONTON — Matt Nichols knows the key to becoming the Edmonton Eskimos’ No. 1 quarterback might mean playing a little less like, well, Matt Nichols.
Nichols and newcomer Mike Reilly formally began their competition for the top job Sunday as the Eskimos opened their 2013 training camp at Commonwealth Stadium.
Nichols, a career backup, showed promise in spot play for Edmonton in 2012 before a gruesome ankle injury left him writhing in pain on the floor of Toronto’s Rogers Centre in last year’s CFL East Division semifinal — his leg pointing north, his ankle trending south.
Months earlier, Nichols was concussed when he led with his head scrambling for a first down against Hamilton, leaving him struggling to find his way off the field.
Nichols said when the situation calls for it he’s still going to lead with his chin, but he’s going to be smart about it.
“I usually don’t try and take linebackers head on,” said the 26-year-old.
“But some of the situations I was in last year — thrown into games late when we were down by a lot — I felt the need to try and spark the team a little bit.
“It’s a long season, (but) if it’s the end of a game and it’s third and five and I need an extra yard for a first down I’m going to do anything I can to get that first down. Earlier in the game I’ll probably play it a little bit more safe.”
Eskimo head coach Kavis Reed said the discretion of a hook slide can sometimes be the better part of valour.
“(Nichols) is a young man that is hell bent on trying to make the play so that his team can be better off for it, but we want him to have longevity in this league and we are hopeful that he can preserve himself more,” said Reed.
“Having gone through an injury, I think he’s going to be more conscientious of knowing when to take risks.”
Reed says the quarterback job is wide open, with every pivot in camp getting a chance to step up and impress.
He said there are a lot of similarities between Reilly and Nichols — both scrambling quarterbacks in their prime who played college ball in Washington state.
“I had an opportunity to talk to one coach that has worked with both of them and he said to me clearly, ’Put their names in a bag pull one of them out,”’ said Reed.
Reilly, 28, came over from the B.C. Lions in the off-season after impressing in short stints backing up Travis Lulay.
He has spent most of his pro football life as nomadic training camp fodder in Pittsburgh, Green Bay and St. Louis, just looking to get enough reps to put together some film to shop to the next team willing to give him a shot.
“For me it was never a question of whether I would succeed or not. I just wanted the opportunity,” he said.
Their numbers are similar.
In 2012, Reilly completed 53-of-74 passes for 684 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Nichols was 48 of 83 for 884 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
Reed said whoever is the No. 1 will get the chance to learn the job and not worry about being one pick-six interception away from getting the hook.
“Once that (starter) is established, barring injuries and catastrophic performances, we need to be patient with that person,” he said.
Reed said despite the team’s 7-11 finish last year and first round exit at the hands of the eventual Grey Cup champion Argos and ex-Eskimo quarterback Ricky Ray, they’ve moved on.
He agreed with the suggestion the shocking Ray trade cast a shadow on the team last year, but one that has now lifted.
“We’ve gone through a calendar season and now we’ve had an entire off-season without talk of Ricky Ray,” he said.
“We have very talented quarterbacks vying to be established as the next franchise quarterback. It’s a very important time in our franchise’s history.”
Ray’s No. 15 jersey has also moved on.
It’s being worn in camp by free agent defensive back Chris Rwabukamba.