Even as the biggest decision of his life hovered over his head, Jeremy McNichols said he has never been happier than in the last month.
“Those 7 a.m. lifts, those practices you dread all day, I was just taking it all in because they might be the last ones I have at Boise State,” McNichols said Monday.
Sure enough, they were.
And the Cactus Bowl on Tuesday (8:15 p.m., ESPN) will be his last game for the Broncos.
The junior running back made it public Monday that he will forgo his final year of eligibility to pursue a career in the NFL. The draft is in April.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole situation, because I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I was 7, 8 years old,” McNichols said.
It was not a choice that came easy, coach Bryan Harsin said, though McNichols said it was made soon after the regular season ended Nov. 25. Harsin was the first to break the news at Monday’s media day.
“Very appreciative for what he’s brought to Boise State,” Harsin said. “... I think a great opportunity for him, to go into this game, to play his very best.
“He’s certainly practiced that way.’’
McNichols said the feedback he has received from the NFL Draft Advisory Board indicates he is not likely to be taken in the first two rounds. He’s being told he’ll be drafted, possibly in the third, fourth or fifth rounds.
His predecessor, Jay Ajayi, left after his junior season and was taken in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. Ajayi is sixth in the NFL in rushing this season with 1,213 yards and eight touchdowns for the Miami Dolphins.
“Playing running back, the lifespan is really short,” said McNichols, whose birthday was Monday. “... Talking to Jay was huge. He mentored me through the whole process.”
Some of McNichols’ teammates have known of his decision for a month, and all have been supportive, he said.
“Everybody, my coaches, my teammates, they all supported me. I’m not getting bashed for it,” McNichols said. “That makes it a lot easier. It’s another reason that confirms why I came to Boise, it’s because of the people. I’ve never got any bad vibes, it’s why I will continue to be around the community, because of all the love and support I received the last two and a half years.”
One of those teammates who knew of his decision is senior offensive tackle Mario Yakoo.
“Just looking at the risk and the reward, he just couldn’t pass it up,” Yakoo said. “... I’m fired up about his future. He’s by far one of the best backs I’ve ever played with. Look at Jay tearing up the league week in, week out. He’s got just as much potential, if not more than Jay.”
McNichols does not have the mileage that most backs in the draft will have. He rushed 17 times as a freshman, playing a hybrid running back/receiver role. He missed one game as a sophomore because of a concussion, but has otherwise avoided injury. This season, he has rushed for 1,663 yards (No. 5 in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and scored 27 total touchdowns (No. 2).
“I know he’s going to come out like his hair’s on fire,” Baylor cornerback Ryan Reid said.
It is the fourth straight season a Bronco has left for the NFL after their junior year: DeMarcus Lawrence in 2013, Ajayi in 2014, Kamalei Correa last year, and now McNichols. Lawrence and Correa were second-round picks, by the Cowboys and Ravens, respectively.
Just as the Broncos’ offense hummed along when he took over after Ajayi left, McNichols feels that will continue. True freshman Alexander Mattison has rushed for 307 yards on 59 carries this season, scoring four touchdowns. He also has four catches for 49 yards.
“Alexander had a great year as a freshman. He got a lot of playing time. Even when I was a freshman he got more playing time his freshman year than my freshman year,” McNichols said. “... With me leaving, I feel comfortable and confident with the guys coming up.”
Three running backs who will be in a loaded draft field — LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Baylor’s Shock Linwood — have said they will skip their bowl games to begin NFL preparations. McNichols said “there’s no way that I would sit out on these guys and be selfish.”
“I feel like I did everything I wanted to do in Boise, and I’d love to finish it as strong as I can,” McNichols said.
Cactus Bowl: Boise State vs. Baylor
▪ Time: 8:15 p.m. Tuesday
▪ Where: Chase Field, (40,400, grass, home of baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks), Phoenix
▪ TV: ESPN (Rece Davis, Joey Galloway, David Pollack, Molly McGrath)
▪ Radio: KTIK 93.1 FM, KBOI 670 AM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
▪ Vegas line: Boise State by 7 (over/under is 67 1/2)
▪ Coaches: Boise State, Bryan Harsin (31-8, third year; 38-13, fourth year overall); Baylor, Jim Grobe (6-6, first year; 116-121-1, 20th year overall)
▪ 2016 records: Boise State 10-2, Baylor 6-6
▪ Key stats: Boise State’s two losses this season were by a combined nine points; Baylor has lost six straight games by a combined 262-157 points.
▪ Bowl records: Boise State 11-5 (won six of past seven), Baylor 11-11 (lost four of past seven)
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Weather: Chase Field has a retractable roof, which is expected to be open for pre-game activities and closed for the game. Tuesday’s forecast calls for sun, highs reaching 70 and lows in the mid-40s
▪ What to wear: The Broncos will wear the same uniform combo they have in their previous three Phoenix bowl games, all three wins: blue helmets, white jerseys and orange pants. Fans coming to the game are asked to wear orange.