Great high school player, but...

Many fans got their first look at Chris Nickson this past weekend, as the versatile quarterback led Pike County to victory in the Alabama state playoffs. Watching Nickson execute his team's passing offense while also running the ball effectively, thousands of television viewers around the state came away impressed.

"Why isn't Alabama recruiting Nickson as a quarterback? We should sign this young man up as quickly as possible!" was the reaction of many Tide fans.

There is no question that Nickson was a dominant athlete on the 3-A level. Smart, athletic and tough as nails, he often seemed to be able to do whatever he wanted on a football field.

"We had a mixed game plan all year," Nickson explained. "Do whatever we see from the defense. Execute our offense. That was basically our game plan. However the defense lines up in, we have something in our playbook for that."

Nickson's not kidding when he talks about keeping the defense off balance. From one down to the next he will execute a pocket pass, then a roll-out pass, then run the ball up inside on a quarterback keeper--all with seemingly equal effect.

When healthy, Nickson has a slingshot arm. He handles the short outs fairly well, but can struggle on longer pass patterns calling for pure arm strength. Nickson doesn't have a Dan Marino arm on the long ball (or even Brodie Croyle's, for that matter), but he's about as football savvy a quarterback as you'll find in high school. He anticipates and reads coverages well, and time after time was able to burn opposing secondaries deep.

Of course in that regard, Nickson benefited immeasurably from his cousin, 6-5 Nick Walker who was clearly one of the top two or three dominant athletes in the state. Whenever Nickson needed a completion, he'd throw a jump ball to Walker. And more often than not, Walker came down with the completion.

Chris Nickson was a dominant player this year versus 3-A competition.

Says Nickson, "I basically can throw all the passes. Whatever we find open, that's what we try to go after."

When left to his own devices, Nickson displayed an uncanny knack for rolling out and finding the weak spot in a defense. A master at improvisation, his high school coach was more than happy to put the game in Nickson's hands. But as effective as he was moving the pocket and executing quarterback draws, Nickson's worth as a pocket-passer in college is open to question. And inevitably as he absorbed more and more punishment, sometimes his passing accuracy was affected.

Sporting jersey No. 1, Nickson was clearly the leader of the Pike County team. On defense he played free safety, where he showed good instincts. Nickson had a long interception return for a touchdown to help seal the state championship win.

On special teams the lanky senior worked on kickoff returns, punt returns, ran down on kickoff coverage and even blocked for placekick attempts.

During pre-game warm-ups, Nickson basically functioned as his own quarterbacks coach, lining his receivers up in the right spot and changing up pass patterns when needed.

Various reports have Nickson anywhere from 5-10 ½ to 6-1 in height. After watching him in a state playoff game against T.R. Miller, we "eyeballed" him at just over six feet, tall enough to compete in college but obviously not the ideal height coaches like Mike Shula look for.

In high school Nickson had no real trouble seeing over opposing defenders, but he was also helped in that regard by his inclination to scramble at the drop of a hat. He tends to hold the ball a tad low, causing a longer windup throwing motion than ideal. But that can be corrected with coaching. Besides, he has a reasonably quick release.

Not surprisingly, Nickson was most effective when working from the shotgun or running the option. Given his reported size (6-0, 198), he is surprisingly effective running between the tackles. Versus T.R. Miller, a quality 3-A team, he continually stuck his nose up inside, absorbing blows and always coming back for more.

Nickson (right, No. 1) walks onto the field with his cousin and Tide commit Nick Walker (No. 15).

"(The pounding) is not that bad," Nickson said afterwards. "That just goes along with playing Pike County football."

Pike County defeated T.R. Miller that night in overtime to continue its playoff run. As it turned out, that was the closest contest Nickson and his teammates would face on their way to the state title. After the game he said, "It was really exciting, but for the fans, not for me. I like for them to be blowouts."

One of the knocks on Nickson is that he isn't particularly fast. The database lists his 40 time at 4.6, but he reportedly clocked a 4.8 at one summer combine. Yet time after time he was effective running the ball for Pike County.

"We go with what we see and what the defense gives us," Nickson said. "When they give us the run, we try to take advantage of it."

There's no question that Nickson has a presence about him. He looks like an athlete who has been playing quarterback all his life, which is precisely what he is. His backpedal and footwork in moving around in the pocket are good.

Nickson reminded this observer of a slower, but tougher Dameyune Craig. Unfortunately, I don't think Nickson's arm strength matched Craig's.

The best thing you can say about Nickson is that he's a gamer. He'll occasionally miss a receiver, throwing off target or too low. But invariably (in high school at least) he'd come back the next series and burn the defense for a touchdown. According to the TV announcers, Nickson was responsible for 66 touchdowns this season.

Former Tide Head Coach Mike Price offered Nickson a scholarship last spring as a quarterback. Mike Shula told Nickson that he would honor the offer, but that the Tide was recruiting Nickson for defense.

Obviously Nickson is tough enough to handle safety. And his uncanny feel for the game gives him an edge in sniffing out the play. Speed could be a problem, but in the games we saw Nickson displayed good closing speed to make the tackle.

Nickson told us that he would wait until after the playoffs to concentrate on recruiting. He's said all along that he'd commit quickly to the Tide to play quarterback, but that is not a possibility. And at this point it appears that Nickson's offer to play defensive back at Alabama has probably run out as well.

Scouts are troubled by Nickson's lack of height, lack of arm strength and relative lack of speed. Football recruiting is all about how an athlete projects against college-level competition. And as dominant as Nickson was in high school, he won't face 3-A talent in the SEC.

From my completely amateur perspective, I believe Nickson could be effective in college--even in the SEC. But a coach would essentially need to do what the Pike County coaches did, let Nickson be Nickson. Design your entire offense around his strengths. Roll him out constantly, while also putting in multiple quarterback draws and option runs to keep the defense off balance.

Nickson needs to sign with a team that will be willing to design its offense around his talents.

Besides the obvious reluctance of Mike Shula to redo his offense to suit the talents of one player, there's the question of durability. If your offense is designed to showcase Nickson's talents, then what happens if Nickson goes down? If the 225-pound-plus, rock-solid and tough-as-nails Tyler Watts couldn't stay healthy running the option, then how likely is it that Nickson would hold up through an entire season?

Nickson would have been frighteningly good as a wishbone quarterback. And he may well yet get his chance at a school like Mississippi State that is down on talent and looking for a quick fix.

If Alabama had its full complement of 25 scholarships to give, then the situation might be different. But at this point it doesn't look like Nickson will be wearing Crimson.

RECRUITING NOTES: Nickson is rated a two-star prospect by network.

Alabama is allowed to bring in 19 new scholarshipped players this fall. The Tide is expected to sign as many as 22 players in February, anticipating that several will not become qualified. It's also possible that one or more players may be asked to delay entry into The University until the following January, counting against 2005 scholarship numbers, depending on how qualifying issues play out.

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