East Lansing – When Montae Nicholson is asked if he is an athletic freak, he shakes his head laughing, having a hard time believing he could possibly be thought of that way.
It doesn't compute in the sophomore safety's head. However, plenty of his teammates disagree.
"His size is ridiculous, his speed is crazy," fifth-year senior safety RJ Williamson said. "He'll be a great player. … He will be an All-American before it's all said and done."
That's exactly what Michigan State and coach Mark Dantonio were expecting when they recruited Nicholson out of Monroeville, Pa. At 6-foot-2 and nearly 220 pounds – Nicholson said this week he's at 217 – he has the prototypical size to play safety.
But it's the speed Nicholson possesses that puts him over the top.
During the final scrimmage of preseason camp, redshirt freshman running back Madre London broke through for a 70-yard gain, only he didn't score on the play. Instead, he was tracked down from behind.
"Montae, of course," London said when asked which player caught him.
The friends will debate about whether Nicholson had the angle, but the point isn't lost – Nicholson can run you over, or he can run you down.
And the greatness that many -- Dantonio included -- predicted appears like a pretty good bet to come to fruition.
'I'm part of a team'
Of course, the humble young safety tries to brush off any such praise, calling it "nice" and "flattering." Instead of focusing simply on himself, he talked more about what the entire defense needs to do ahead of the opener against Western Michigan.
"I'm part of a team, something bigger than myself," he said. "We have some work to do, so it doesn't affect me.
"We've got to get better at tackling. We all make tackles, but we want to make every tackle. One isn't just OK, every tackle needs to be made. We've got to tackle in space and teams are gonna try to test our safeties, our secondary as a whole. They did last year and had some success with that. This year I feel like we have to better ourselves in every aspect."
Some teams did have success against Michigan State's safeties last year, and that was one of the reasons Nicholson earned three starts as a true freshman. Williamson had his struggles at various times and lost his starting spot to his younger teammate.
But Williamson was back by the end of the year and now the two line up next to each other as part of a formidable back end to the Michigan State defense.
"Me and him last year were battling for a position and he got three starts when I wasn't playing well," Williamson said. "That gave him confidence and it has rolled into this season. Montae is a great competitor, a great player. He has the size and ability of a NFL prototype safety, and I'm glad to be playing next to him this season."
A prototype safety, maybe, but Nicholson also could find himself contributing in other areas. In the spring, he spent a small amount of time at receiver and the option of a few plays on the other side of the ball remains.
He has the athleticism, running track for Michigan State in the spring and finishing sixth in the long jump at the Big Ten championships. However, Nicholson hasn't spent much time on offense during preseason camp.
Not that he'd say no to having the ball in his hands.
"I wouldn't mind it," he said. "But I came here to play DB. They'd like me to play some receiver, but right now I'm on defense."
The Spartans are happy with Nicholson right where he is for now, and working toward becoming that great player they all expect is the focus.
"He's coming, you forget he's only in his second year, so there's some things he's still learning," co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. "But he's getting better and he's starting to focus on the little things instead of just playing on natural ability. So that big year that people are expecting, I'm expecting it too, and he is also."
Michigan State at Western Michigan
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo
Radio: WJR 760
Series: MSU leads 11-2
Line: MSU by 18.5