If Jeremy McNichols is successful in the NFL, they might as well change the name of Boise State to Running Back U.
First there was Doug Martin, who racked up 3,431 career rushing yards before he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He's now a two-time Pro Bowler.
After Martin came Jay Ajayi, who totaled 3,796 career rushing yards during his three seasons in Boise before being selected in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. He finished fourth in the NFL in rushing last season and was named to the Pro Bowl.
McNichols is the next man up. The 5-foot-9, 214-pound running back took over the starting gig after Ajayi left for the NFL, and he did not disappoint. McNichols was a touchdown machine for the Broncos, totaling 26 total TDs in 2015 and 27 in 2016.
When I first met McNichols, he was FaceTiming with Ajayi. The two talk regularly, and Ajayi serves as a mentor to the 21-year-old McNichols. "Jay and I really connected early on," McNichols told STACK. "He saw some potential in me and he treated me like a little brother. He showed me the ropes on and off the field. That continued even when he got drafted. We talk a couple times of week. We're competitive, you know what I'm saying? I told him I wanted to beat every one of your Boise State records. I'd call him and tell him I'm getting closer and closer, and he's happy for me. It's always going to be competitive—I'm going to chase his records in the NFL."
McNichols doesn't lack confidence nowadays, but his path to the pros was humbling at times. When he was growing up, his family bounced between Long Beach and Central Los Angeles. The instability was tough at times, but McNichols found an outlet in sports.
"I think I fell in love with football in elementary school. I knew I was really good at it, and I thought I could take it somewhere, but I wasn't sure. But that's what I always wanted to do," McNichols said.
With each passing year, his game improved. In the talent-rich pipeline that is southern California, McNichols befriended many of the best players in his area. By the time he was a sophomore at Lakewood High School, he had already seen many of his friends receive scholarship offers. Troubled by the lack of interest from college programs, McNichols reached out to his friend John Ross for advice—yes, the same John Ross who would go on to have a spectacular career at the University of Washington and set the new 40-Yard Dash record at the NFL Combine.
"I remember calling him because he was one of the top guys in the area and I had a good relationship with him. I just wanted to know the process he went through and what I needed to do to get more offers. Because I was hardly recruited throughout high school," McNichols said. "He just told me to keep working hard and stay patient. He told me I was still young [McNichols was a grade younger than Ross], so stay patient, just keep working hard and things are going to work out for you in the end. Him having that belief in me gave me confidence."
McNichols heeded Ross's advice, and the summer before his senior year, he finally received that precious first offer. "It was one of the best days of my life," McNichols said. "Those older guys [like Ross] taught me how to be patient, and it really paid off and it was an exciting moment for me."
McNichols transferred to Santa Margarita Catholic for his senior season and made the most of the opportunity. Boise State judged his abilities as a runner and a receiver attractive enough to offer him a scholarship, and McNichols signed on the dotted line on National Signing Day. But then he had to be patient once again. As a freshman, he watched Ajayi rack up 2,358 yards from scrimmage and 32 total touchdowns. Ajayi declared for the NFL Draft after the season, and the job transferred to McNichols.
"I had a huge chip on my shoulder. Pretty much every team I played against had no offer for me. So at the end of the game, I wanted those coaches to wish they'd offer me," McNichols said. "[I had that mentality] as I went into every game and prepared each week."
Plenty of opposing coaches imagined what might have been as they watched McNichols slice and dice their defenses. During his sophomore season, he racked up 1,797 yards from scrimmage and 26 total touchdowns. He followed that up with a stellar junior campaign in which he ran for 2,183 yards from scrimmage and 27 total touchdowns. Perhaps his most memorable game came against BYU, as he led the Broncos to a 28-27 victory with 140 rushing yards, 109 receiving yards and two touchdowns. "That was a dog fight. That game really changed our season and gave the team and myself confidence," McNichols said.
Throughout his superb season, McNichols placed friendly wagers with Ross. "Friendly bets. Whoever scored the most that week tells the other person how many Push-Ups they need to do," Ross told STACK.
At the end of the season, McNichols believed it was time to set his sights on the NFL. Ross did as well, so the two came together to train at Athletic Republic in Irvine, California. The competition continued. "If he picks up 90-pound dumbbells, I want to go to 95. Then he wants to go to 100. Little things like that make the training more fun," McNichols says.
The two players also worked with noted speed trainer Gary Cablayan, who has trained a number of Olympic sprinters. NFL speedster DeSean Jackson has been a client for 18 years. McNichols credits Cablayan for changing his running style. "I used to run really heavy on my toes and even swing my legs out when I ran. He had me do more heel striking to give me more power," McNichols said. "Also, getting my arms more involved and pumping." The results paid off at the Combine, as McNichols clocked a speedy 4.49 40-Yard Dash.
As for draft day, McNichols is predicting a lot of emotion.
"Oh, man. Emotions are going to be everywhere. It's going to be excitement—just knowing everything paid off and that this isn't [the end]. This is just a new beginning," McNichols said.
The best advice he says he can give young athletes is simple—keep working hard every single day, because you never know what's going to come of it. "I'm a prime example that it's not always going to happen the way you want it to happen. Timing is everything," McNichols said. "Just keep working at it and keep dreaming."