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Houston coach Art Briles has his Cougars at 2-2 with a two-quarterback system. Houston is Alabama's homecoming opponent in Tuscaloosa on Saturday.
AP photo by Bill Haber
Houston coach Art Briles has his Cougars at 2-2 with a two-quarterback system. Houston is Alabama's homecoming opponent in Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

Vandy's Nickson next dual-threat for AU's defense

By Ross Dellenger · 340-2462

Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson recalls his first college football game.

The year was 2001. A young teenager at the time, Nickson was one of 82,000 people watching Auburn face Ball State in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

"I remember Ball State had an athletic quarterback at that time. He was pretty fast, but he couldn't run away from them," Nickson said.

  • ickson hopes he can escape the Tigers' defense Saturday when Vanderbilt (3-1, 1-1 SEC) meets Auburn (3-2, 1-1 SEC) at 11:30 a.m. at Pat Dye Field.

    A Brundidge native, Nickson was the state's Mr. Football in 2003, toppling defenses with his quick feet and strong arm, but Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville passed him over in the recruiting process. The Tigers just weren't looking for "that type of quarterback at the time," Tuberville says.

    He might pay for that Saturday.

    "I think I have a flexible ability," Nickson said. "If they give me an opportunity, I'm going to use it."

    Although Auburn ignored Nickson, they found a very similar kind of quarterback this past recruiting year.

    "He's a lot like Kodi Burns," Tuberville said of Nickson.

    A true freshman, Burns already has been introduced as the heir to Brandon Cox, garnering a start and substantial playing time this season. His dual-threat ability is similar to that of Vandy's play-caller.

    But Nickson can't remember Auburn showing any interest in him, and Alabama recruited Nickson as an "athlete," with no promises of putting him at quarterback.

    "I went with the opportunities that were given to me and it's worked out fine," said Nickson, who was a fan of neither Auburn nor Alabama growing up.

  • ickson said he's not out for revenge Saturday. His main concern is for Vanderbilt, a program that is trying to break a 23-year bowl drought.

    "Just winning this game period means something for this organization," he said. "We're looking forward to it. It's a great atmosphere to play at."

  • ickson was redshirted his true freshman season. He played behind Vandy QB Jay Cutler for two seasons, before vaulting to the starting position last year, leading the Commodores in rushing (694 yards, nine scores) and passing (2,085 yards, 15 scores).

    Coaches selected Nickson to the preseason All-SEC third team.

    He was on his way to another successful season but separated his shoulder during the third game of the year against Ole Miss. Nickson said Wednesday that the shoulder is "a lot better."

    But just last week against Eastern Michigan he threw a career-high four picks. The Commodores still rolled to a 30-7 win.

    A fully healthy Nickson shined against Richmond and parts of Ole Miss, completing 70 percent of his passes as he combined for 485 yards and four touchdowns.

    Auburn fans may be seeing the future of the Tigers' football program right before their very eyes on Saturday, as Nickson slashes and dances his way around Pat Dye Field.

    Two more years and it might be Burns doing the same.

    "They're very similar," said Vandy offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, who recruits the Decatur area but did not recruit Nickson, who is from Southeast Alabama. "I know a lot about (Burns), having very good legs, controlling the football, makes good decision. I think he's going to be very special. Of course we feel the same way about Chris."

    The two are similar from size to speed to statistics. Nickson stands at 6 feet 1 and weighs 210 pounds. Burns is 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. Nickson runs a 4.5 40-yard dash. Burns? The same.

    In high school, Nickson put up gaudy numbers, totaling more than 9,800 all-purpose yards and 142 touchdowns in a sterling career. Burns wasn't far behind. He ran and passed for more than 8,700 yards and scored 94 touchdowns at Northside High School in Arkansas.

    Last week, Auburn faced a dual-threat quarterback in Florida's Tim Tebow. But Nickson presents a different challenge.

    "Tebow's a big, physical guy," defensive end Antonio Coleman said. "Nickson's not as physical, but he's going to make you miss. He moves like a running back."

    South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe may be more similar to Nickson. Tuberville said Grothe "isn't as quick" as Nickson, but they both have the "same mentality, a guy that takes control of the game, runs the ball when he needs to and can throw it, too."

    Grothe rushed for 31 yards on 18 carries against Auburn. Nickson is hoping to do more but understands facing the 29th-ranked defense will not be easy.

    "They have a great defense, and they are very fast," he said. "I probably can't outrun them, but hopefully we can do some things that will help us win."

    Averaging about 10 carries per game, Nickson is coming off his best rushing performance of the season last week when he ran 12 times for 67 yards.

    Defensive tackle Josh Thompson is awed by his lightning- quick feet.

    "This guy is really, really fast," Thompson said. "It's just ridiculous how he makes cuts and the plays that he makes. He's going to be tough to tackle."

    Sound familiar?

    It is.

    Five things you may not know about Vanderbilt

  • The Auburn-Vanderbilt series is tied 19-19-1, but the Tigers have won the last 12 meetings dating back to 1955. Vandy has never won at Auburn in seven tries.

  • Vanderbilt has played just three true freshmen thus far this season. Auburn has played 13.

  • The Commodores haven’t had a winning record since 1982, when they went 8-4 and garnered a trip to the Hall of Fame Bowl. Vandy has had just three winning seasons since 1960.

  • Vanderbilt has a “food coach.” That’s right. Majid “Magic” Noori cooks for not only the football team, but all Commodore student athletes. Noori’s culinary creations have been featured in Sports Illustrated, in USA Today and on CBS.

  • Vandy receiver Earl Bennett leads the SEC, averaging nine catches a game and 117 receiving yards an outing. Bennett, who has broken countless conference and school receiving records, should break another this week against Auburn. Bennett is just three catches shy of passing Keith Edwards’ 200 career receptions, and he’s just 11 shy of breaking the all-time SEC record for catches.

    Ross Dellenger

    Vanderbilt at Auburn

    11:30 a.m.

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