I got in touch with several writers on the college football blogs. I wanted to get their thoughts on the Redskins newest draft picks and ask a few more revealing questions about how these players fit on the team and their chances of making an impact either immediately or down the line. Austin C. Smith of The Only Colors sheds some light on new Redskin S Montae Nicholson.
Cadillactica: Could you give us your impression of what the Michigan State coaches thought of Nicholson while at MSU?
Austin C. Smith: Nicholson came to MSU with a lot of hype. He was a 4 star, Top 150 recruit (#135), the best in the state of Pennsylvania according to Rivals. He had offers from all over -- Florida State, Miami (FL), Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford, and Wisconsin -- and ranked behind only Malik McDowell in MSU's 2014 recruiting class, so landing him, in and of itself, was a major win for Mark Dantonio.
The coaches thought so highly of him that they decided there was no need for a redshirt. Coming from Dantonio, a former DB whose player tree is pretty impressive, that's high praise. He played in all 13 games his freshman year for a team that went to the Cotton Bowl, including three starts, and made a few Big Ten All-Freshman teams. His trajectory was that of a future day one pick.
However, he never reached that level. We'll talk about his development in a bit, but despite starting both his sophomore and junior seasons, he never took that big leap one would expect from a player of his immense physical talents. He was also benched a few times -- the biggest of which came against Michigan in 2015, forcing MSU to start two true freshmen at safety -- but he was never an outspoken source of issues with the team. I wouldn't call him a problem child but he never emerged as a leader, either.
Cadillactica: Coach Jay Gruden has said he likes Nicholson's athleticism. It's assumed he'll start his career as a key piece of the special teams unit. Can you talk a bit about Nicholson's comfort with the safety position? Is he a strong or a free safety or both at the next level? Do you think he can come in and grab the reserve job behind current Redskin safeties, Su'a Cravens and D.J. Swearinger?
Austin C. Smith: Montae is everything physically that you want a safety to be. He's every bit of 6'2" 212 (I think he played closer to 220), has a long stride and can hit like a freight train. He was a three-time state track champ in high school, ran on the track and field team at MSU and his combine numbers showed off that speed (4.42 40 yard dash) and short area explosiveness. Hell, his hands are even good enough that there was a decent amount of speculation that he could play both ways at MSU. In terms of athleticism, Washington got a stud.
However, he's pretty much a "traits only" prospect at this point. I'm not totally familiar with how the Washington defense uses its safeties but if they ask him to be a centerfielder, Montae is going to be using that track speed to chase down wideouts a lot. I wouldn't expect a ton from him outside of special teams off the bat but if the coaches are willing to be patient and really concentrate on developing him, he could start to chip in a bit towards the back half of this season and early next.
Cadillactica: The little tape I have seen of Nicholson definitely show off his athletic traits. Can you talk about his development at MSU? He still looks pretty raw in coverage. I think the Redskins think he has a near elite physical skill set and they believe his coverage issues can be worked out. Do you agree?
Austin C. Smith: In a word, yes. Raw is the perfect way to describe him, especially when it comes to his coverage skills.
It's not all his fault, but Nicholson did not develop the way that MSU fans had hoped or his pedigree would have suggested. The backbone of the MSU defense -- former Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi's Cover Four/Press Quarters -- is the secondary, namely safety. The corners play aggressive press man, and the safeties play a lot of deep coverage. Narduzzi left MSU for the head job at Pitt after 2014 -- Nicholson's freshman year -- and while the defensive structure remained the same, MSU lost the architect and best person to bring Montae along in his development.
His sophomore year wasn't as big a struggle since the front seven was so good -- Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath, Lawrence Thomas and McDowell starred on the line -- but his junior year was not the same. Not at all. The pass rush was anemic, to say the least, finishing with only 11 sacks in 12 games despite still having McDowell in the fold, and the corners were inexperienced. That combination really exposed Nicholson. He was also paired with Demetrious Cox, a similar player to Nicholson in that he lacks the pure coverage skill that MSU likes in its safeties.
Had Montae been with a true centerfielder, great coach or have anything resembling a pass rush, I think you're possibly talking about the "day one" player people envisioned, but his circumstances weren't the best.
Cadillactica: Can you describe his strengths and weaknesses?
Austin C. Smith: His athleticism is his biggest strength. As you said, he has a near elite set of athletic traits and if you're talking about a ball of clay for a defensive coordinator to mold, it doesn't get much more attractive than Montae. Also, dude can HIT. He had his share of tackling issues at MSU, but when he landed one, woo boy you could feel it at home.
The reason he didn't land as many as you'd expect is because his ball pursuit is bad. Really bad. It seemed like two or three times a game Montae would take an inexplicable line to the ball carrier and rely on that tremendous athleticism to correct any errors. More often than not it led to a bust in coverage or a big play for the other team....and that was in college. Now in the NFL, there is significantly less room for error, those bad lines will spell disaster for his career if he can't correct them.
If Washington is smart -- and has the centerfielder to do it -- they will use him like the Arizona Cardinals use Deone Buchanon and play him more as an in the box safety. He has the frame to carry some more weight easily without losing much speed, he can already cover tight ends and backs and by shortening his distance to the line of scrimmage, you reduce his margin for error when it comes to ball pursuit. The NFL is already trending this way if Washington can get on board and be patient, Montae could flourish.
Cadillactica: Could you sum up his play in a single word or phrase?
Austin C. Smith: Nicholson looks like a football player you would make in a lab. He definitely makes the "All Gym Shorts" first team but right now, that's about it. He still has a world of talent that the Redskins can unlock, but they'll need to be patient. If they are, they could have a star on their hands. If they rush him into playing time, his stay in Washington might not be a long one.
Michigan State safety Montae Nicholson plays a physical game. Great size at 6'2 215. Can run. Reacts well. pic.twitter.com/3tmMmP13Zs— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) April 26, 2017
Montae Nicholson may be a traits only player today but after Austin’s insights, I can see why the Redskins decided to use their 4th rounder on him. He is without a doubt raw, but it also seems as if he has a ton of untapped potential. I think his career at MSU tells us that he can be a versatile player in the backfield and his better when he has pieces around him. He is probably never going to become a superstar that flourishes without talent around him and will always need to be propped up by coaching, a pass rush, or good corners around him. He needs to work on his fundamentals, get into film study, and earn his stripes but “potential” was the perfect summation of the player IMO. They have a few rounds between them but I don’t view Nicholson’s role (at least in the beginning of his career) as dissimilar for Josh Harvey-Clemons the Redskins S that will play dime linebacker against certain alignments from the offense. That may not be the most exciting news for anyone looking for gems or immediate production from a 4th rounder but it seems the Redskins are stocking up on these versatile/hybrid players for a reason. Let’s see how it pans out. Thanks again Austin!