Slapping on weight to his 6-foot-8 frame has never been difficult for Tate Nichols, who left Ryle High School in Walton, Ky., as a robust 270-pound tight end.
Keeping his left shoulder from slipping out of place and causing agony has been the greatest challenge.
Now a filled-out 320 pounds and healthy after labrum surgery last September, Nichols is in competition for the starting right tackle spot vacated by the graduation of two-year starter Taylor Dever.
“I’ve got most of my strength back,” said Nichols, who is competing with players such as Christian Lombard and Nick Martin for the right tackle slot. “So when it comes down to what I bring to the table, I feel like I’m 100 percent healthy for the first time in a while. I’m ready to go.”
Physically, Nichols is one of the most imposing football players ever to wear a Notre Dame uniform. Most offensive linemen on this level are big; Nichols is bigger than most. His stature and overall girth is reminiscent of former Irish offensive tackle Brennan Curtin, who played for the Irish in the early 2000s at 6-foot-8, 305 pounds.
“My size is definitely a unique aspect,” Nichols said. “There aren’t a lot of guys that I’ve seen that are as big as me. I definitely think that helps me a lot.”
Nichols needs all the help he can get in practice this spring because his daily ritual usually means a head-to-head meeting with a young defensive end by the name of Aaron Lynch, who led the Irish in sacks as a freshman in 2011.
“Aaron Lynch is definitely a great player, and I feel really privileged to be able to go against him in practice,” Nichols said. “He’s so good that it’s only going to make me better going against a guy like him…If I can block him, I can probably block anybody.”
Nichols’ strength is as a run blocker. His massive frame allows him to gain leverage on just about anybody he goes against. Pass blocking is a bit more of a challenge, due in part to Nichols’ time away from the field with the shoulder injury.
“I have long arms, and that’s something I have to utilize, which I hadn’t been able to do because I was thinking about the shoulder,” Nichols said. “Now that I’m healthy, I’m getting back into that, being able to put my hands on people. That’s definitely the biggest thing in pass blocking that I’m kind of having trouble with.
“Pass blocking isn’t something you’re naturally good at. It’s a technique and a skill you have to learn. I’m working hard to get my technique better, but I’m rusty, as you would expect. I don’t think it’s going to be my Achilles’ heel or anything like that. I think it’s something I can be proficient enough and good enough at to compete, and good enough to win with.”
Nichols has come a long way since his prep days when he caught 28 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns as a senior tight end/defensive end at Ryle High. The process of converting to offensive tackle began before his arrival at Notre Dame when he had the opportunity to work with long-time Cincinnati Bengal offensive tackle Joe Walter.
“The transition from tight end to tackle wasn’t horrible because I knew coming in that’s what I was going to play,” Nichols said. “Working with Joe Walter gave me a head start. I wasn’t as far behind as a lot of guys would have been switching positions.”
After preserving a year of eligibility in 2010, Nichols tried to position himself for the future, working at left tackle behind Zack Martin. But the left shoulder wouldn’t cooperate. He finally had to shut it down and concede to surgery the week before the Purdue game.
Now healthy, Nichols can compete fully without any restrictions, which has given him a new lease on his football life under first-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.
“I really like the way he’s focused on our technique,” said Nichols of Hiestand. “He’s got a lot of experience coaching college and NFL offensive lines, and the attitude he brings every day to go to work is something that excites you. It’s really a lot of fun to play for him.
“It’s a very aggressive attitude. It’s like he attacks every day he goes to work.”
Hiestand’s points of emphasis with Nichols center around using those long arms and taking advantage of the athleticism of the former tight end.
“He’s been on me a lot with my punch on my pass set,” Nichols said. “In the run game, it’s always moving your feet. He always talks about bringing your knees once you make contact.”
Nichols is setting his sights high this spring.
“All those guys are good players, all highly recruited guys,” said Nichols of his right-side-of-the-line competition. “I definitely want to start. I want to do what I can to help the team. Right now it’s a very fluid situation with a lot of guys taking reps.
“It’s definitely an opportunity I’m going to try to take advantage of. It’s fun. We all play college football to compete, and the competition is great. I think I can bring a physical nature to the right tackle position.”
And size. Plenty of size.