Coaches call it a “nose for the end zone.” The cliche about running backs with a knack for winning at the goal line might refer to the wrong body part.
“It’s all heart,” Boise State true sophomore tailback Jeremy McNichols said. “It doesn’t really matter the size you are down there. It’s all heart and do you want to get in there or not.”
Nobody has reached the end zone more this season than McNichols, whose 10 touchdowns in four games puts him in a tie for the national lead with running back Tyler Ervin of San Jose State.
McNichols has scored at least twice in each game, including a streak during which he scored the Broncos’ first six touchdowns of the season, a school record.
“We do want to run the ball inside the red zone,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “We have to test that theory as many times as possible. You run to win.”
McNichols has scored nine of his touchdowns on plays that started in the red zone, inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He has scored five times from inside the 5-yard line, where defenses crowd the line of scrimmage, offenses bring in extra muscle and backs often are on the bruising side.
The 5-foot-9 McNichols, who bulked up to 205 pounds in the offseason, uses his slipperiness and surprising power to succeed.
On the second of his three TDs against BYU, he ran up the middle and into the back of an offensive lineman. He then broke two attempted tackles, including one at the goal line.
That has become the norm.
“That’s a lot on him,” Harsin said. “We’ve blocked it for a certain number of yards but he’s just had great second effort.”
Boise State is one of the nation’s best teams in the red zone. The Broncos score touchdowns on 65 percent of their trips and allow touchdowns on just 33 percent.
McNichols has earned the respect of his defensive teammates with his finishing ability.
“That’s a different world,” senior defensive tackle Justin Taimatuia said. “You’ve got to be a man right there at the goal line.”
As the Broncos drive down the field, McNichols begins to sense they must capitalize with a touchdown. He doesn’t care, he said, if he’s asked to run with the ball, catch it or block.
“Whoever’s hands the ball is in, we need to get it to the paint,” McNichols said. “That’s just how I feel.”
On those goal-line runs, he checks the angles of the defensive linemen, the flow of the linebackers and the movement of his own pulling blocker to determine where to go. He also draws from his own instincts.
“It’s a lot of feel just because the defense is extremely aggressive and you just want to react off whatever movement they try to stop you with,” he said.
And when he scores?
“You’ve just got to experience it,” he said. “It’s a crazy feeling because you drive all the way down the field to have that feeling. It’s good to celebrate with the guys after.”
He also tries to take a moment for himself. After many of his touchdowns, McNichols has bowed. It’s a religious act.
“Glory to God,” he said.
McNichols’ humility, terrific work ethic and early success has convinced coaches that he’ll be the Broncos’ next special tailback.
His other numbers aren’t as gaudy as his TDs — 273 rushing yards at 4.3 per carry — but there’s a sense that the yards are coming soon.
“He’s pretty powerful,” offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said. “There’s a couple of stiff-arms he had in the (Virginia) game that were, ‘Wow.’ He’s still got explosive speed.
“That first third-and-1, he eliminated an angle by the safety who’s a really good player. The first touchdown run he had, he ran through linebackers who were converging on him. He’s tough.”