Lew Nichols entrenched as leader of CMU backfield, depth shines at camp
Ending last season as the nation’s leading rusher, Lew Nichols III is the preeminent running back in the Central Michigan football backfield as the 2022 season approaches.
As a redshirt freshman, Nichols finished 2021 with 1,848 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 341 carries, outpacing Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III and Iowa State’s Breece Hall. Both Walker and Hall are currently in the NFL.
Although Nichols would have been a top target in the transfer portal, he said he didn’t give it much thought.
“I wanted to follow up the season I had last year with this group of guys,” Nichols said. “I mean, I didn't really put too much thought into that.”
Instead, as the Chippewa offense looks to retool multiple positions, Nichols has stepped into a leadership role. Running Backs Coach Cornell Jackson said Nichols has gone about it in his way.
“He's done a nice job helping the younger guys in the room,” Jackson said. “He’s done a nice job on the field motivating guys, but is he a rah-rah get-in-your-face type of player? No, he just turns up the volume with pads on.
“I tell you what, he's having an unbelievable camp. Lew came in shape like he always does, keeping his chin down just a little bit, running hard. Good team leader.”
The only question left around Nichols' career is where he will finish in the CMU record books.
Who’s Next Up
Like many positions throughout the CMU football team, its running back room has experienced turnover. Previous contributors Kobe Lewis and Darius Bracy transferred during the spring.
However, depth hasn’t been an issue in recent years and sophomores Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes are expected to split time behind Nichols in 2022.
“(The) next guy up is Myles Bailey,” Jackson said. “He's doing an outstanding job. (Bailey) did a nice job in the offseason and OTAs. He's got the right mindset you know, kid can run and catch and protect the quarterback.”
Hailing from North Brunswick, New Jersey, Bailey played in 12 games as a freshman and recorded 245 all-purpose yards.
With the help of Nichols, Bailey spent the offseason working on his patience and believes that will be a major factor in his emergence during year two.
“When I first got in, I kind of had my toes in the water, I didn't know a lot,” Bailey said. “I wasn't being patient, you know, I wasn't hitting the holes the way I needed to. But this year, I feel like I'm more patient, more explosive. I worked on that tremendously in the offseason, I feel that is going to impact my game.
“The one thing about me coming in, I was in that high school habit of getting the ball and trying to go, trying to outrun everybody."
According to Jackson, Bailey is leading the race for Nichols’ backup, but Lukes is also expected to play a large role in the offense.
Already known for his speed, Lukes has spent the offseason trying to soak up everything he can from the nation’s leading rusher.
“Marion Lukes, he's got good speed,” Jackson said. “Saw him last year return a (kick) for I don't know 100 yards. He came in shape and had great OTAs/offseason.” He's gotten bigger, I think now he's up to 198.”
Spending 2021 primarily as a returner, the Charlestown, Indiana native earned an All-Mid-American Conference Third Team nod after averaging 23.1 yards per return. However, it wasn’t until he took a return 100 yards to the house against Eastern Michigan that he felt comfortable.
“It felt like taking off a weight vest,” Lukes said. “You've got so much pressure on your shoulders, like coming into college. If you're going to be able to still continue on the success you had in high school and to be able to come out here and do it, it felt really good.”
With the value head coach Jim McElwain puts on running the ball, Jackson said Lukes and Bailey have gained the coaching staff's trust.
“We were young last year, Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes were young,” Jackson said. “They are not young backs anymore. We feel really confident about them. They've shown us that they can contribute to this football team and when Lew needs a break. We got no problem putting those guys in there.”
While both players hope to make their presence felt as running backs, Jackson said their impact must go beyond that.
“They can also help us on special teams, returning punts, returning kicks,” Jackson said. “But the thing I like about (our) young running backs, especially these two guys, they do an unbelievable job in pass protection.”
For Lukes, being a threat on special teams is something he values.
“I enjoy it a lot, it allows me to get on the field and be a starter, not sitting on the sidelines,” Lukes said. “I take much pride in it. Because as you know, a lot of people go into the NFL, and that's all they do is just strictly special teams at first until they can prove themselves.”
One player who fits that description is former CMU standout Kalil Pimpleton, who is currently with the Detroit Lions.
“KP always had a little bit of something to say in my ear, you know, just telling me to calm down, read, look, open your eyes, and have good vision,” Lukes said. “He was telling me everything is going to be fine. Just go out there and do exactly what you've been doing your whole life.”