About three years ago, Montae Nicholson attended a camp going into his sophomore year of high school at Monroeville (Pa.) Gateway. There he watched Demetrious Cox, a standout from nearby Jeannette was in attendance as he prepared for his senior year.
”I was just looking at him like, ‘Wow, he is really good,’” Nicholson said. “I just wanted to be like him.”
“We got a little bit of reps in practice last week, but we found that out Friday that we were going to be getting more reps on Saturday,” Nicholson said.
It was not something Nicholson ever pictured would happen back at that camp – playing alongside Cox – as he was just fighting for playing time in high school. Now, he is back in the same spot, fighting for playing time in the secondary at Michigan State.
“There definitely is still a lot to learn,” he said. “Every chance I get when I’m not in class or studying, I’m in watching film and still studying just in a different aspect.
”I think everything is coming along pretty well.”
Defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett seconded the belief that Nicholson is coming along. He added that Michigan State is focused on grooming him and getting him ready through getting reps. But with the natural elements he brings, he already has been what they expected, as Barnett said he might be the most athletic freshman defensive back the Spartans have had.
“He’s a true freshman who can run really and move, has great ball skills, and so he’s as advertised,” Barnett said. “He’s a good football player and I think he’s gonna be a really, really good football player before he leaves here.”
He is getting the chance to show that sooner rather than later. He had a career-high five tackles against Eastern Michigan and recovered a fumble.
Coach Mark Dantonio said Nicholson is continuing to push to get on the field because of “the nature of his ability,” but the coaches are keeping an eye on his learning curve to see where he plateaus.
”When you're a young player, you tend to learn as you move forward,” he said. Games are different than practices. Things are going a lot faster, there's more on the line, but he's an active player. He's 6'2" plus. He's extremely quick and fast. He's 212 pounds, a good tackler, got great ball skills.”
With extra snaps Saturday, especially with the first-team defense, Nicholson said the biggest thing he gained was confidence.
“Being out there allowed me to gain confidence and believe in myself more,” he said.
He said the speed of the game has been the biggest adjustment thus far, as well as the amount of time required to study the game with the demands of playing safety.
“You have to relay calls to corners and linebackers, but once you learn everything, it is pretty easy,” he said.
Aiding in the process of building Nicholson along the way has been senior safety Kurtis Drummond, who Nicholson said he tries to take after and learn from. He said he has been learning a lot from Drummond.
“There are so many things honestly, but the biggest thing I picked up from not only him but Coach Barnett is just get in the playbook,” he said. “You can be in the playbook and that is where all the information is.”
As he does that and keep working on his craft, the coaches see a bright future ahead of him. Right now, Nicholson offers just a “maybe” when asked if he should see more snaps in the coming weeks.
”I’m not sure,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn, so we will have to see what happens.”