Facing the prospect of being Sam Bradford's backup at Oklahoma for the next three years, sophomore quarterback Keith Nichol has opted to transfer and put in for his release on Thursday.
The former Rivals.com four-star prospect out of Lowell, Mich., will soon be on the open market, and his availability is likely to attract interest from programs around the country.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Nichol competed with Bradford for the Sooners' vacant quarterback position last summer. He ultimately lost out to the redshirt freshman who went on to have unprecedented success in his first season under center. After competing again this spring to be Oklahoma's top guy in 2008, Nichol found himself behind Bradford on the depth chart and came to a decision he said was not easy.
"I've been in practices and meetings now for awhile, just wondering what I should do," Nichol said. "There were a lot of pros and cons to each, but in the end I just think it was not fair to anyone or myself to be wondering whether I should be here. I should be 100 percent (committed) to my team and not thinking of anywhere else, so I just felt I should move on. I don't regret going to OU at all. Things just didn't work out is all it came down to."
The success Bradford experienced as a freshman was certainly a catalyst for Nichol questioning his future with the Sooners. The 6-4, 200-pound passer led the NCAA in passing efficiency during the regular season, completing 70.1 percent of his passes for 2,879 yards and 34 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.
Beating out Bradford for the starting role after that type of season was a long shot this spring, even though the Nichol had so closely competed for the job last summer. Nichol was on the verge of securing the backup spot for Oklahoma going into 2008, and there were even rumors in Norman that the coaching staff had offered to redshirt Nichol this season to put him a year behind Bradford. Neither option appealed to Nichol as much as leading his own team, however.
"Me and Sam were neck-and-neck all summer, and in the last week it came down to just a little more experience and them feeling more comfortable with him," Nichol said. "He had a shot and ran with it and did real well, having one of the best freshman seasons at quarterback ever. I didn't feel that they were going to change that, and I wasn't going to rely on an injury or him playing bad because I wouldn't wish that on anybody. We're in the same grade, so I've got to move on and hope for an opportunity somewhere else."
Leaving his friends on the team, particularly running back Demarco Murray with whom he was closest, was one of the most difficult aspects of the decision. But so was leaving a coaching staff with whom he had grown close. Nichol spent nearly all his time with quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel, and he had come to respect and rely on head coach Bob Stoops as a father figure.
When it was time to break the news to Stoops, Nichol did not know how the head coach would react but found his reaction only furthered the appreciation Nichol already had for Stoops.
"When I was there, I understood why he was one of the best in the business," said Nichol of Stoops. "The way he handled (the transfer) was better than I anticipated. I think he kind of had a feeling what was coming. I just told him I needed to move on. I didn't blame them for what they were doing with Sam, but I just needed to move on
"He said, 'I don't blame you. I don't want to see you not play at all and we want to get you in there, but with Sam playing so well we can't do that.' I was just real taken aback by that. He didn't make me feel guilty."
Nichol met with Stoops before taking his final exam at Oklahoma and finishing out his semester. The head coach was set to board a plane later that day out of the country for vacation with his family according to Nichol, however, so the release papers will have to wait to be signed until Stoops returns to Norman, something Nichol expects to happen later this week.
"I can't officially go see anybody until he signs the release," Nichol said. "I kind of had pushed it on him last minute, so obviously he's not going to be able to jam that in when he is leaving two hours from our meeting."
According to Nichol, there was not one particular team he had in mind when making his decision to transfer. Speculation was that Michigan State was a potential destination because Nichol had originally committed to the Spartans early in his high school career and they will graduate senior quarterback Brian Hoyer after the 2008 season. Michigan was not a school Nichol considered out of high school, but now that Rich Rodriguez brought his spread option offense to Ann Arbor, the Wolverines appear to be a better fit for Nichol's skills
"Just knowing college football, I know there are vacancies everywhere, so I wasn't very worried about whether someone would want to pick me up," Nichol said. "Obviously people are eyeing Michigan and Michigan State because they're back home, but I don't know their interest in me, and without their interest I can't get a scholarship and can't go there. I'm just waiting and looking at everything as an option.
"If anybody gave me interest, I'd give them interest back. I'm going to be fair to everybody. Obviously an in-state team would be easy to access and go see them, but at the same time if a school somewhere in California, Florida or anywhere wanted me to come take an official visit, I'd go do that.
"I'm just being patient and seeing what schools are interested in me because I don't know every situation around the country. I'm hoping that if someone needs a quarterback they'll be looking at me as a guy who could come in and play."
Nichol's first recruitment was an interesting journey. He had committed to Michigan State when John L. Smith was the head coach but chose to sign with Oklahoma after Mark Dantonio took over the program. Having had the experience once before, he knows what to look for and what elements of a program are most important. Relationships with the head coach and quarterbacks coach will be near the top of that list, but so will aspects of the campus and education afforded.
"You just know when you are at a school that it just feels right. When I walked into Michigan State it felt right and when I walked into OU it felt right," Nichol said. "I'm looking for a strong academic experience which a lot of big-time schools have to offer."
At Oklahoma, Nichol was in the Business School, working toward a degree in Marketing. He plans to continue that educational route at his next destination and hopes to make short work of deciding where that will be.
"We're hoping to get it going as soon as possible and hoping to end it by June so I can start summer workouts with their team," Nichol said. "I definitely don't want to be that guy who shows up in the fall after everybody's paid their dues in the summer. You start off on a bad foot when you do that."
Nichol appeared in two games for the Sooners this past season, completing 2 of 7 pass attempts for 15 yards. If he transfers to a Bowl Subdivision school, NCAA rules will require him to sit one year before becoming eligible to participate in games with the school he chooses to attend. He will still have three years of eligibility to play starting in 2009.