July 29, 2017

Inside The Huddle | Matt Nichols

Matt Nichols (15) and Andrew Harris (33) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the BC Lions at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, BC., on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

He spends hours with them, not just under the bright lights of game day, but on the practice field, in the film room and on airplanes, trains and automobiles all across this great country.

It’s Matt Nichols’ job to know everything about the men he shares the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive huddle with – not only their assignments on every play, but their strengths, their weaknesses and what makes them tick.

First things first before we proceed: It should be known that Nichols is the type who likes to keep things loose in the huddle. In last year’s West Semifinal, he promised a pizza party to the offensive line if they kept him protected on a certain play. Earlier this year, he asked Weston Dressler during a TV timeout if his new rib guard made him look thinner. sat down recently with the Bombers veteran pivot to get a feel for his understanding of all the men who stare back at him when a play is called and the offensive coaches in the booth and on the sidelines who are constantly in his ear.

What follows is his scouting report on each and a little peek into their personalities…


“First thing: what an incredible career. He’s a tireless worker, a student of the game and a great guy to be around. Just a true professional.

“But what I think about him is our goofy little inside jokes and the looks we give each other on game day when we have something schemed all week and then it happens like that in a game.

“Last year he, Smitty (former receiver Ryan Smith) and I played this (XBox) game called ‘Rocket League’, a cheesy game where you drive micro-machine cars around and try to hit a soccer ball into a net or a hockey puck into a net. In the playoff game last year, I threw Weston a 60-yard ball and then next play threw Smitty a touchdown and on the sidelines we were all high-fiving each other and it was like, ‘Man, the Rocket League team got it done on that drive.’

“I know it sounds goofy, but that’s how we like to keep it light out there sometimes.”


“I had a ton of respect for him even before I got here. And then when I did, he was exactly how I imagined he would be. Hard worker and an incredible athlete who flies under the radar.

“Denny’s kinda quiet. He gets along with everyone, but yells at us for playing loud rap music. This year people threw out the term ‘Uncle Denny’, but I’m not sure he’s in tune with it. Maybe it makes him feel old.”


“He’s our energy guy. Always talking, always getting everyone excited. He’s the one that plays the loud rap music in the locker room. He’s got all the sayings in the book… it’s just like everything he says is funny.

“One of the things everyone on this offence has is they’re overlooked and under-rated. He has a chip on his shoulder and that’s something I appreciate.”


“He speaks three languages… but I don’t know if he speaks them all that well. LaPo (offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice) always asks him, ‘How do you say that in French?’ He’ll either say, ‘I don’t know’ or says something that sounds like a mix between English and French.

“The thing I love about Julian is he has questions about everything because he wants to be great. You get some guys who never ask and then go out and do it incorrectly. With Julian, it’s like even when he knows the answer he’ll ask just to make sure. I love it because I know he’s going to be where he needs to be.”


“He wants to be good at everything, which is great. He plays ping pong in the locker room and wants to win. During training camp, we had this little tiny basketball hoop on top of Darvin’s locker… there were some pretty intense competitions on that basketball hoop. We have our own rules and we make these little tape balls that we use. During training camp when he was hurt, he had a little extra time and always seemed to be practising in there so he could compete with me and Dress and Darv.

“He’s a competitor, that’s for sure. He just fits in with this group.”


“There’s a quiet confidence about him. He doesn’t talk a ton, but it’s just the way he walks on the field, especially after he makes a play. He’s a playmaker. Knowing his back story… it’s incredible. I feel like I’ve gone through a lot, but it’s not even close to the kind of life experiences he’s had to go through. To be able to respond from the things he’s been through is inspiring.”


“In one word: relentless. I’ve been watching him since I’ve been up in the league and he refuses to go down. I can tell when we’re in the huddle and he’s breathing hard or he’s worn out and we call another run play… I’m thinking in my head, ‘Man, maybe we shouldn’t be running the ball here because Andrew’s dying.’ Then I hand him the ball and he’s full speed pounding the guys still. There’s not many people that can mentally do that, let alone physically.

“Without a doubt, he’s the smartest running back, maybe one of the smartest football players, I’ve ever been around. He’s always laughing, always got a smile and we’re always cracking jokes and laughing about little stupid things, too. We have a lot in common, both having daughters. I know he’s an awesome dad. It’s great when you meet someone and think they are awesome guys and then you find out over time they really are awesome.”


“He’s another of our French Canadians. What I like about him is he loves his role. He wants to stick his nose in there and does the dirty work and doesn’t get a lot of credit for it. One of the things I really remember was throwing him a check down and then him jumping over a guy. When you see a fullback do that it gets everyone fired up.

“I always ask him little questions, like if two French guys are in the locker room, how do they know whether they are going to talk to each other in English or French? I’ll always yell his name in a French accent, like ‘Christophe Normand!’ He’s another guy that’s not a big talker, but does his job and works hard. You love being around guys like that.”


“Everyone gives Stanley a hard time about everything he does because all he does is die laughing about it. Even with all the Snapchats with all the Bombers in the offseason he’s always the sideways-crying-laughing face because anything you say to him he’s always laughing. He’s always in a good mood. He’s the glue of our offence. And for me, I never have to worry about Stanley or what Stanley is doing. He’s always doing his job and winning his battle.

“He doesn’t talk a ton in meetings, but when the gavel needs to be slammed it’s like ‘Sound good Stanley?’ And he’s ‘Yup.’”


“My first start last year was his first start here. And before the game I remember lining up behind him and out of the corner of your eye you see him and think, ‘Holy cow, this guy’s blocking for me?’ Even my wife said, ‘I’m glad that guy is blocking for you.’ He’s a big guy, a hard guy to get around. He is humongous and he’s very athletic for how big he is.

“Sometimes after a play you see him walk back to the huddle with this look on his face like he just beat up a guy. I’ve seen that often in games.”


“Goose… I remember when he took over at centre we were at B.C. and his mom was sitting next to my mom in the stands. They got to talking a little bit after the game and I guess my mom told his mom, ‘Tell your son thanks for blocking for Matt.’ He’s just a studious guy. I get in here at 5:30 every morning and he’s the second one in. He comes in by six o’clock and gets on the other computer and starts talking to me about protections. He’s a perfectionist. I told him I know as much as anyone on the team about football IQ… I know where all the receivers are supposed to go, all the protections and runs. And it impresses me when we’re not even finished walking up to the line of scrimmage yet and he’s making all his calls because he’s seen it so many times on film he knows what they’re getting into before they even line up. We never have blown protection calls. He’s always got it right.

“He’s the nicest guy in the world. Both he and his wife are just great people. He’s the guy that leads team chapel before games and Bible study and all that stuff.”


“He’s as gritty as they come. He could have been an O-lineman in 1960. He could have been an old-school offensive lineman when there were no rules and you could eye-gouge and do whatever you wanted. He’s just a grinder. If he doesn’t have someone to block he goes and ear-holes the guy next to him. One of the best things I can say about him is (Edmonton Eskimos linebacker) J.C. Sherritt told me after the game we played there last year that we had the dirtiest, grimiest O-line that he’s ever played against. And one of the guys he singled out was Sukh. I can’t use the words J.C. used, but Sukh just never stops. That’s a huge compliment from one of the best linebackers in the league.

“He’s a great dude.”


“He is capital letters ‘ENERGY.’ The things he does… at practice a running back finishes 30 yards downfield he’s finishing 30 yards downfield. He’s sprinting all the time, he gets everyone else going. The belief he has in me has been huge for me. He tells me he loves me almost every day. As person… he’s got three kids, his wife’s awesome. He’s a great dad who spends a lot of time with his kids. He’s had a long and winding road to get here which I can appreciate. He just fits in great. And what can you say about the ‘Hardrick Hop’? That’s something he started up last year… that’s not him falsifying his emotions or anything like that. He’s just so excited to run up and celebrate with the crowd. That’s him.”


“He’s a nerd, just like me. We’re both into sci-fi-type stuff. We’re movie junkies, TV junkies. The first thing he says to me when I see him in the offseason is, ‘What shows are you watching?’ We’re both West Wing fans and the classics like Godfather. We’re very similar, our competitiveness and fire is similar. I just feel like we’re a well-matched team.”


“It’s extremely important for me to have a coach who has stood back there and faced live bullets before and knows what it’s like. I’ve had coaches in the past who haven’t done it before… they weren’t a quarterback or weren’t a professional quarterback and it was hard for me to really listen to what they were saying because they’re Xs and Os, letters on a piece of paper where it’s not like that when you’re out there behind centre. He’s a great guy for me to lean on and he’s great for me on the sidelines because our game-day personalities are very similar. I was never on a team with him, but watching him on TV he was an extreme competitor and I feel like I’m like that on game day. He sees that in me and so when I come to the sidelines and I’m fired up about something he’s really good about chilling me out and helping me move on to the next thing.

“We’re also both married, both have daughters around the same age and both of our wives are due within a week of each other coming up and we’re both from Northern California. We’re similar guys with similar personalities. I feel like me and Buck and LaPo are a good combo.”


“He’s a perfectionist. Even with Coach Wylie here last year he was a big part of our success up front. The guys have all the faith in the world in him. In the offseason when Coach Wylie left (for the Cleveland Browns) my first words to LaPo and our guys were, ‘Marty’s going to be our coach, right?’ All the guys wanted him here and he’s a guy you want to play for. He’s just another grinder, another hard-working guy.”


“I’m always trying to keep it light or crack jokes during TV time-outs. I remember last year I told the O-line I’d throw them a pizza party if the protection held up on a certain play, a long-developing play where we took a shot downfield. I want to try and keep it mellow out there because guys can get super tense.

“I was mic’d up a little while ago… I started wearing these new rib guards this year, they’re like Kevlar. My last few years I wore these big, bulky rib guards and we’re playing and an MTS ad pops up on the scoreboard that shows me in last year’s rib guards. I asked Weston if I looked thinner this year.”