BURNABY — Brandon Niksich signed up for a football adventure when he answered the recruiting call of the Simon Fraser Clan this past off-season.
Yet just weeks into his college career, as the winds blow colder and the calendar turns to October, Niksich finds himself playing a role he wasn’t altogether sure he was going to get this early in his college football career.
On Saturday (1:05 p.m.), in Monmouth, Ore., the freshman slinger, who arrived atop Burnaby Mountain following a prodigious high school career just south of the line at Federal Way’s Beamer High, makes his fourth start at quarterback for Simon Fraser (0-4, 0-1) as the Clan faces the Western Oregon Wolves (2-2, 2-0) in its GNAC road opener.
Ascending quickly into the starting role following a season-ending injury by sophomore Justin Seiber in the team’s opening game against Portland State, Niksich has kept SFU fans on the edge of their collective seat with an arm meant for highlights, but still youthfully prone to mistakes.
Three second-half pick-six interceptions over the past two games alone would be enough to force many rookie college pivots into retreat.
Yet the best part of Niksich, aside from that big arm, one which incidentally leads the GNAC in passing yardage heading into the weekend, is the resiliency he packs within that 6-foot-5, 180-pound frame.
“The coaches here have been great,” Niksich told VarsityLetters.ca this week as he prepped for Western Oregon. “They are teaching me a lot. But the one thing for me is, I am stepping into some big shoes here. At this moment, I can’t be a freshman anymore. I have to try and play like a senior and do my thing.”
Niksich is not only leading the GNAC in passing yards at 60-of-114 for 821 yards, with four touchdowns against six interceptions, he is also the only pure freshman starting pivot in the entire conference.
Last Saturday night at Swangard Stadium, Niksich was doing his so-called “thing” and doing it very well.
On the first series of the fourth quarter, against defending league champ Azusa Pacific, the Clan defence got a dynamic play on third-and-long from cornerback Jerrell Cummings to force the Cougars to settle for a field goal.
Then, they blocked the ensuing 23-yard attempt, kept the score at 21-12 APU, and heightened the collective pulse throughout the stadium that a lengthy conference losing streak was in danger of being snapped.
Alas, it was not to be.
On the very next play, Niksich threw a 29-yard pick-six with 10 minutes remaining, and the visitors from California were on their way to a 38-12 win.
“They scored on the pick-six and I just saw our heads go down and I am just not interested in giving up,” said Clan head coach Thomas Ford when asked about timing of a time-out he called, gathering his entire team along the sidelines.
“I really don’t care what the score is, for us it’s all about the process,” he continued. “It’s no mistake where the program was and I still truly believe we’re headed in the right direction. We’re doing some stuff that is incredible and now that we’re in competitive situations, we just have to be able to win those kinds of games.”
Niksich is all in and he is bringing pluses to the table, one of them being his touch on the deep ball.
In the Clan’s non-conference home-opening loss to South Dakota Mines, he ran a high-tempo, hurry-up offence with aplomb, leading his team right down the field and capping it off with a first-half walk-off 30-yard touchdown in the end zone to receiver Rysen John.
Last Saturday, he found running back Solomon Hines in full stride for a 75-yard TD pass, then later hit John with a 50-yard touchdown pass.
Old football axioms can rarely, if ever, be dismissed, and with that, the growing pains of every rookie must be endured.
Ford, however, thinks too much of Niksich’s potential to sugar-coat anything about the first few weeks of his quarterback’s college career.
“Brandon is an extremely talented kid, his arm talent speaks for itself,” says Ford. “He has to work on some of the little things He has to do a better job of trusting his protections, and he has to do a better job of trusting his progressions.”
For his part, Niksich is absorbing it all… with gusto.
“For the past few weeks, I’ve worked on staying in the pocket more, and not just trying to make big plays,” he says. “I can take a shot every once in a while, but I’ve got to stay in there more and trust my reads.
“It’s a little tough because I am trying to make a play,” adds Niksich, who says he spends a lot of time off the field watching video under the tutelage of Seiber, just a year his senior. “Sometimes I need to take what they give me, sometimes I need to realize that a two-yard gain is better than a five-yard sack, and that if I get tackled at the line of scrimmage, we get another down, instead of me looking at a tight window where it’s either a pick or a completion.”
The process to which Ford speaks of gets another opportunity for growth come Saturday in Oregon, but it won’t be easy against a Wolves team off to its first 2-0 GNAC start since 2011 and perhaps the class of the conference this season.
Yet for Brandon Niksich, who has already decided he can’t play like a freshman anymore, it’s the kind of challenge which has done nothing but help him grow over a college football debut he never saw coming.
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