Nicol Stepping Up In Starting Role

Ohio State sophomore Rory Nicol was one of the top tight ends in the country in high school and he is showing why this season. In his first year as a starter for the Buckeyes, Nicol is proving to be a valuable receiver and blocker. He caught his first touchdown pass of the season last week against Bowling Green and was named OSU's Jim Parker offensive lineman of the week.

No, Rory Nicol isn't putting up gaudy statistics. But Ohio State's tight ends rarely do.

There have been a few exceptions, like John Frank (1980-83) and Rickey Dudley (1994-95), but traditionally OSU uses the tight end as a sixth offensive lineman… who occasionally catches passes.

And in his first year as a starter, Nicol is performing his role well. The 6-5, 250-pound sophomore has seven receptions for 55 yards, and scored his first touchdown of the season last Saturday against Bowling Green.

But it's his blocking that has really caught the coaches' eyes recently. He was even named OSU's Jim Parker offensive lineman of the week for his performance against the Falcons. Six different players have won the award in as many weeks.

"It's humbling, because everybody else on our line is about 300 pounds," Nicol said. "It's fun. I thought I played a pretty solid game up front, but there's always things you can do better. But to win that award, it's cool. I don't think a tight end has won it since my freshman year (2004). I think it was Ryan Hamby the first game of that year."

Nicol played as a true freshman in '04, but redshirted last year after tearing foot ligaments in preseason camp. He entered this season expecting to be the starter, but the path to the first-team was made even smoother when junior Marcel Frost was suspended for the year, which led to his departure from the program.

"I was upset to see Marcel go, but I don't think it really affected my situation much," Nicol said. "I was preparing myself to be the starter and play a lot of football for this team and that's how it's worked out."

Nicol has reason to be confident. He was ranked as the No. 2 tight end in the country when OSU signed him out of Beaver, Pa., a town in the western part of the state near Pittsburgh. As a senior at Beaver Area High School in 2003, Nicol caught 18 passes for 234 yards and five touchdowns. He had 15 receptions for 168 yards and one touchdown as a junior. He also played linebacker and finished with 78 tackles, 6.5 sacks and two interceptions as a junior.

Nicol was offered by Penn State, but had a final four of OSU, Pittsburgh, Florida and Georgia Tech. He explained what was attractive about OSU at the time.

"Well, I've actually got a trainer at my high school who was a roommate with our trainer here Doug Calland in college, so I've always had a little bit of a tie here," he said. "I had been coming to Ohio State games for quite some time. It came down to a time in my life where I had to make a decision of where I wanted to be and this was a place that had great coaches, unbelievable fans, unbelievable facilities. It's an offense that I love. I used to watch Ben Hartsock and really idolized him. He was a dominant blocker and receiver and it was something that I wanted to come in here and try and carry on that legacy."

Is that why Nicol wears the No. 88, to honor Hartsock?

"I've always been 89 actually," he said. "And it's ironic because Stan White's dad was 88 here. You would have thought we would have switched numbers, but we didn't. And now I like 88. I came in with 86, but there were some things that happened on the punt team that year with Kyle Turano and I switched to 88 and I'm just going to stay with it."

When Nicol signed with OSU, the Buckeyes didn't exactly have a fashionable offense. But he was drawn to the smash-mouth nature of OSU's traditional attack.

"We love to run power, we love to run off tackle and the tight end is involved to an extent," Nicol said. "We're more versatile now, but it was an offense that was attractive to me at the time and still is."

Nicol knows that his primary role in OSU's offense is as a blocker. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Blocking is fun," he said. "I mean, it's not fun when you're getting your butt kicked, but I've been working on it and it's something that I've always prided myself on. It's fun for me. I think it's fun anytime somebody that is 250 pounds beats somebody that is 290 pounds."

Nicol enjoys working with OSU tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator John Peterson. It wasn't all that long ago that Peterson was a starting offensive lineman for OSU and he can relate to the players. But at the same time, Peterson is plenty stern when he needs to be.

"Coach Pete is great," Nicol said. "He does such a good job. He's like a father-figure away from home. He is tough on me about how I'm playing and never lets me get complacent. But if I ever need to talk to someone face-to-face about anything, he's there for you."

Top-ranked Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) will take on Michigan State (3-3, 0-2) on Saturday (3:40 p.m., ABC) and it will mark Nicol's first trip to East Lansing.

"I actually didn't make the trip in 2004," he said. "I sprained my ankle in the Penn State game that year. I remember watching it and I remember Teddy (Ginn) played a really good game and we won and it was exciting."

The Buckeyes are 14.5-point favorites, but Nicol knows they will be facing a fired-up MSU team that would like nothing more than to pull the upset and spoil OSU's season like in 1998.

"Michigan State is a good team," Nicol said. "They've got a physical defense and we've already scouted them. It will be a tough game. They are 3-3 and we can remember that feeling my freshman year when we were 3-3 and we were at the point in our season where we were going to go one of two directions. I'm sure they are kind of feeling the same way right now. They are going to come out and play hard and they are going to scratch and fight and claw and do whatever they have to do. We have to be ready to go up there and play well."

See, Nicol isn't just playing like a veteran, he's talking like one too.

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