A workhorse running back. A threat in the passing game out of the backfield or split wide. A quarterback’s last line of defense in pass protection.
Jeremy McNichols believes that sort of versatility is what separates him among one of the deepest running back classes in years.
It is simply part of what made McNichols a special player for the Boise State football team.
When he wanted to become a better blocker last season, he spent time in the offensive line’s meetings to learn what makes them tick.
When he debuted in 2014, he had nearly as many receptions (15) as rushes (17). Then a true freshman, he leaned heavily on then-junior Jay Ajayi to learn how to become a true running back.
“Guys that have that quality, always trying to search for something they need to add, those sorts of guys succeed in the NFL,” said Ajayi, in his third season with the Miami Dolphins. “He’s a great listener. All the relationships he’s made have helped him get to where he is now. It’s not a surprise he’s in this position.”
The former Boise State great could hear his name called in Friday’s second or third rounds, though many think the wait may continue until Saturday’s final four rounds.
Among those that will be watching the draft with McNichols this week in Southern California will be Ajayi, who played in the Pro Bowl in January. Ajayi said he wanted to take McNichols under his wing, to help “keep that Boise State tradition going” with strong running backs. The pair have kept a bond despite playing across the country from one another the last two falls.
“I invited him. I want him to share the moment because I learned so much from him,” McNichols said. “It’s a brotherhood that’s going to last forever.”
Ajayi is a noteable part of McNichols’ development into an NFL prospect, but McNichols has been the sort to learn from all sorts of people, not just teammates.
“I feel like you can get something from everybody, no matter what they do — rap, work 9 to 5, play football, play basketball,” McNichols said. “If you talk to them and really listen to them, you can apply it to yourself to improve.”
He credits his cousin, Jaison Johnson, who is a sales manager at an Orange County car dealership as “one of the most influential people in my life.” They speak five or six times a week, McNichols said, talking about football, life and family.
When his confidence was uneasy about five years ago, McNichols leaned on the NFL Draft’s fastest man.
Washington’s John Ross, then a high school senior in their hometown of Long Beach, gave McNichols some advice.
“I still remember the conversation we had. Everyone else was getting offers, and I had none. He basically just said my time is going to come, (and) said he knew I was a hell of a player, that I just had to be patient,” McNichols said. “It obviously worked out for me, and through this whole process, I’m approaching it that way.”
McNichols was as relaxed as a prospect could be at Boise State’s pro day March 30, three weeks after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. He performed well at the NFL Scouting Combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds, tied for seventh-best. He was happy with his workouts and what he’s put on film. McNichols was brought in for one team visit, with the New Orleans Saints.
For two months before late February’s combine, McNichols roomed and trained with Ross, who ran the 40 in a record 4.22 seconds.
“I had a lot to do with that,” McNichols said with a laugh.
Another figure in McNichols’ corner is a friend in — pardon the phrasing — higher places. McNichols has maintained a friendship with Long Beach native and hip hop superstar Snoop Dogg. McNichols was coached by Snoop, née Calvin Broadus, on a 7-on-7 all-star team in high school.
“We definitely still talk here and there. I know he always asks people back home how I’m doing, stuff like that. I know he’s going to be keeping an eye on where me and John, guys we know get drafted,” McNichols said. “It showed me you can be incredibly famous, but not forget where you came from. That’s why I want to be part of the Boise community, my community in Long Beach.”
Ajayi, a fifth-round pick in 2015, said he hopes to hear McNichols’ name “gets called earlier than mine.” When he sits with McNichols and his family during the draft, he will keep him confident as picks roll in, and said he knows his protege can thrive wherever he winds up.
“That desire, regardless of wherever you get drafted, it’s going to propel you in the league. He has that fire inside to be great,” Ajayi said.
McNichols by the numbers
▪ 5-foot-9, 214 pounds
▪ 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash (tied for No. 7 out of 28 RBs at combine)
▪ 1,709 rushing yards as a junior (No. 6 among RBs in NFL Draft)
▪ 27 total touchdowns as a junior (No. 2 among RBs in NFL Draft)
▪ 88 receptions between sophomore and junior years
Vallejo could get the call Friday
Former Boise State linebacker Tanner Vallejo, who has declined interview requests leading up to the draft, could be a candidate to be selected Friday evening. Most mock drafts peg him as a pick in the final four rounds, but NFL.com projected him to go in the third round, 100th overall, to the Titans.
Vallejo has visited the Falcons and Panthers since pro day.
“I’m just trying to get a team to really like me enough to call my name,” Vallejo said March 30. “I’m confident that once I get to a team I’ll shine.”