Aug. 9, 2006
Position changes in collegiate football are nothing new. But for a fifth-year senior to move from one side of the ball to the other, there must be something special in store.
Eastern Washington University senior Harrison Nikolao finds himself smack-dab in the middle of that transition.
After receiving second team All-Big Sky Conference honors as a junior defensive lineman, the 6-foot-2, 295-pound Nikolao (pronounced Nick-oh-lau) has been moved to offensive guard for the 2006 season. Although a shoulder injury kept him out of spring practice, the Eagles are hoping his move to offense will help the Eagles improve their running game while at the same time protect and take pressure off Eastern's inexperienced quarterbacks and wide receivers.
"It's going to be a great challenge for me to make the transition," said Nikolao, a 2002 graduate of Lincoln HS in Tacoma, Wash. "I know going into the season we are going to try to go back to old school, smash-mouth football. We're going to try to control the ground game and pass when we need to. Ground and pound -- that's what I'm looking forward to."
The 2002 graduate of Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash., has a team-high 24 games of starting experience as an Eagle, including a stint as a two-way player in 2004. He started the season as a defensive lineman, moved to offense, then moved back to defense because of injuries.
"Harrison's greatest upside is as an offensive lineman," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff, who played center at Washington State University. "He played defensive line because it was a necessity. Offensive line is where he has always wanted to play and our coaches have wanted him to play, but our depth chart never allowed us to."
His lone offensive start -- in Eastern's "jumbo" formation -- was at tackle in Eastern's second-round playoff loss to Sam Houston State in 2004. That was a game in which the Eagles rushed for 211 yards and five touchdowns, and passed for another 244, in a 35-34 loss. Otherwise, his other 23 starts have come as a defensive lineman, with career totals of 80 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks and a pair of passes broken up.
"We moved him to offense when we had some defensive line depth, but two weeks later we lost two players and he had to go back," recalled Wulff. "What we did see then was that he's very physical and brings a great element of power. He's an offensive lineman that can truly make something happen at the point of attack."
Playing on both sides of the ball has its advantages . . .
In addition, his experience on both sides of the ball makes Nikolao pretty knowledgeable about the talents of the EWU offensive and defensive lines.
"Most of our energy and power, and playing together as a team, is from the offensive line and defensive line," he said. "This year we are returning most of our offensive and defensive linemen. That's what we strive for and thrive on. The guys that do the dirty work and don't complain are the core of our team. That's what helps us win games."
Nikolao also sees his move as helping add depth and maturity along the offensive line. The other four starters are juniors with 67 combined starts between them, and backups include three sophomores and seven freshmen redshirts.
"It helps our football team to have Harrison on the offensive side of the ball," said Wulff. "We have four veteran defensive linemen at his position. He instantly gives us some senior leadership and a great deal of starting experience, which we didn't necessarily have along our offensive line."
"Our offensive line is going to be solid," Nikolao predicted. "If one guy goes down there will be somebody else to step-up and fill in. Depth is not going to be a problem."
Depth is also not a problem at running back, where the Eagles have a quartet of experienced ball carriers. Returning starter Ryan Cole rushed for 879 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior, and Dale Morris added 310 yards and a touchdown in nine games in his Eagle debut. Junior Toke Kefu and sophomore Dezmon Cole have also established themselves as capable backups.
"We not only have to create bigger holes, but our blocking has to be crisp," said Nikolao. "We have to separate defenders from them. They need to be able to run through holes and not get banged up throughout the game and over the course of the season. The offensive line has to buckle down, protect and do the dirty work. We have to keep grinding."
Eastern has had a 1,000-yard rusher in nine of the last 11 seasons, and if all goes well, that might continue. But regardless, Eastern has a one-two punch they hope will be productive and feared by the league.
"Their running styles are different," Nikolao explained. "Ryan is more of a power runner, and Dale is very smooth and can hit the hole faster than anyone I know. I don't know who is more talented or skilled, but they both have their strengths."
"It's really fortunate to have those two players on our side," he added. "It will be great to watch them, even though we can't watch them as offensive linemen because we have to do the dirty work."
Eastern's passing game is the great unknown, as Eastern seeks to replace Payton Award-winning quarterback Erik Meyer and four productive receivers that included record-breaking Eric Kimble. The goal is to not expect too much out of any of the replacements too early.
"They have to know we've got their back," said Nikolao. "Football is a team sport and it's all about being a family. There are always changes. Hopefully those new players can evolve into their own players instead of trying to fill in those big shoes. The players we lost left their history behind, now the new players have to create a new era for themselves to help the team."
Quarterbacks battling for the starting position include junior Chris Peerboom and redshirt freshmen Matt Nichols. Eastern's receiving corp includes one senior who played defense last year (Charles Searcy), a junior with the most experience with 27 career catches (Tyler Coleman) and four redshirt freshmen.
"You can't really see our true colors until we start the season," Nikolao said. "We have some shoes to fill, but that can be done with players taking control, taking the job and doing what it takes to help the team win. We'll see who can step and perform -- (the veterans) will lead and follow that."
"We'll let those guys loose and see what they can do."
He's also anxious to see what his former defensive teammates can do. The Eagles are experienced, and have a talented group of defensive linemen that enabled Nikolao to move to offense.
"Our defense is going to be very experienced and powerful this year," he said. "We have some great players on defense. I think they have gotten over the hump where they can close games out. Over the past couple of years we lost some heartbreakers and slipped up at the end of games. Their experience and power will enable them to close out games and finish strong."
All and all, Nikolao expects great results on both offense and defense in 2006. With experience on both sides of the ball, he knows better than anybody what Wulff is looking for.
"He's all about running the ball on offense and tackling on defense," said Nikolao. "If you can run the ball and control the ground game, you have a bigger chance at winning the game. If you tackle well you have an even better chance."
Eagles Looking Forward to Openers at Oregon State and West Virginia . . .
Nikolao and his teammates are looking forward to seeing what they're made of against a pair of NCAA Division I-A foes to open the season. The Eagles play at Oregon State on Aug. 31 and West Virginia on Sept. 9.
"It's motivating," Nikolao explained. "Playing those teams is overwhelming, but our team is going to have a great experience with it. On any given Saturday, competition is competition. We are going to go in there and compete no matter how big they are."
"It is another level," he added. "It's a high level of competition overall but we'll give it our all. That's how we play -- we play hard and compete. Four years ago we almost beat Oregon State. They have more depth and speed is a factor because they play at a faster pace. Overall, it will be a great experience."
Although it was before Nikolao arrived at EWU, the Eagles lost to Oregon State 21-19 on Sept. 2, 2000, in the first game of Wulff's coaching career.
"We weren't even supposed to be that close," said Nikolao, who was in high school at the time. "That was a great Oregon State team and ended up beating Notre Dame in a major bowl game. That will motivate us. It shows that we can compete with any team."
The opener also adds intrigue for both Cole and Morris. Cole played at Oregon State before transferring to Eastern. Morris is from Eugene, Ore., and his older brother Maurice played at Oregon and currently is a Seattle Seahawk.
"I believe he's going to have a great game at Oregon State," said Nikolao of Cole. "He's gotten stronger and faster. And Dale runs a little like Walter Payton -- he has big strides and picks up his legs."
Nikolao is hoping to end his senior season with a third-straight Big Sky Conference title and playoff berth as a way of concluding his long journey at EWU. He arrived at EWU in fall 2002 as a NCAA non-qualifier out of high school, meaning he couldn't play or practice for a year and couldn't receive a scholarship until he got into good standing academically. Now, he is a few credits shy of his education degree and has a solid 3.0 grade point average at EWU.
"He's been a great student and a leader in our program from the day he stepped foot at Eastern," added Wulff. "He has a great personality and qualities to lead. He's been a great person to be around. He's very mature and has been a great ambassador for Eagle Football."
Yes, indeed, there must be something special in store.