Oct. 28, 2009
By Matt Haas, MSU Athletic Communications
He always greets you with a smile and a hardy handshake. He'll talk to you about his favorite TV show "The Office" or how he wants to pursue a career in law enforcement. And he glows when he speaks about his engagement.
At 6-4, 296 pounds, fifth-year senior and three-year starting center Joel Nitchman certainly fits the physical mold of a stereotypical offensive lineman. But the anger and aggression that he plays with on the field turns into smiles and laughs off of it.
Nitchman came to East Lansing in 2005 as one of the highest-rated prospects in Michigan after a three-year high school career at Hackett Catholic Central High School in Kalamazoo. Despite being a top-level recruit, Nitchman followed the path that most offensive linemen take in college, redshirting his first season.
"Being redshirted ended up being a blessing for me," said Nitchman. "I was able to be on the scout team and go up against guys like Clifton Ryan, Brandon McKinney and Domata Peko (all of whom are now playing in the NFL). All those guys would crush me at first but then I got better. It was because of them that I eventually became the best player I could be."
Nitchman remained on the scout team for a majority of his red-shirt freshman season but when he did see the field he made his presence felt, grading out at a perfect 100 percent against Eastern Michigan. Despite the strong play against the Eagles, Nitchman didn't see the field for the rest of the season. However, Nitchman continued to show his potential on the scout team where he garnered several accolades including being named Scout Team Offensive Player of the Week vs. Purdue.
Heading into fall camp as a sophomore, Nitchman was listed as the back-up center. But after starter John Masters suffered an injury during preseason practice, Nitchman entered the lineup. Due to the demands of the position, sophomores rarely start on the offensive line - let alone center. Nitchman did not disappoint.
Under new head coach Mark Dantonio, Nitchman seemed to thrive. He earned his first collegiate start in the season opener vs. UAB, where MSU amassed an impressive 593 total yards. He worked well with a veteran offensive line and went on to start the first five games of 2007 before he was sidelined with a knee injury in the Northwestern game. Although he was out three weeks, Nitchman bounced back and rotated time with Masters in the final games of the season, helping the Spartan offense rank third in the Big Ten in rushing with nearly 200 yards per game on the ground.
"The hardest part about being injured is watching from the sidelines when you know you could be playing," Nitchman said, who also had to sit out two games this season with an injury. "But at the same time everything happens for a reason. I think God has helped me through that and now I'm back."
Nitchman was back in a big way for the Spartans during the 2008 season. As a junior, Nitchman started all 13 games at center and anchored an offensive line that helped produce the NCAA's fourth-leading rusher in Javon Ringer, who averaged an impressive 125.9 yards per game. Nitchman also allowed only 1.5 sacks in nearly 350 passing plays during the regular season and was selected Lineman of the Week by the coaching staff on three occasions (vs. Florida Atlantic, Notre Dame and Iowa). For his efforts, Nitchman was named MSU's Outstanding Underclass Lineman and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the league's media.
"The individual awards are nice," Nitchman said. "But I'm always looking for team success, so going to a bowl game for the second straight season was definitely the highlight of my season."
In addition to preparing for his final season as a Spartan with the usual conditioning and weight training this past summer, Nitchman, a criminal justice major, completed an internship with the Ingham County Sheriff's Department.
"It blew away all my expectations," Nitchman of his internship. "I thought they would put me in the squad car and tell me to sit down and shut up. But the guys were so cool - I felt like one of them; I felt like a deputy. I got to do some swat training and I had a blast. There are so many different scenarios where you need to be aware. You need to be sharp and understand what's going on around you."
It's no surprise Nitchman would feel comfortable as a leader. And now as one of three fifth-year seniors who start on the offense line, it's a role he doesn't take lightly.
"It's a tribute to everybody hanging in there," Nitchman said. "We're all one unit so we always make sure everyone is on their keys. With the young guys it's helping them through the tough times, because there are going to be some during your freshman and sophomore years. We're all just there for each other which is great."
Nitchman has started five games this fall, and even showed his versatility by playing left guard at Wisconsin in place of injured starter Joel Foreman. He has kept up the play that made him a preseason candidate for the Rimington Trophy, which is awarded to the nation's best center. But Nitchman won't be happy unless the team is succeeding.
"Going to two bowl games has been the highlight of my career, bar none," Nitchman said. "We're looking to make it three and I believe that we can get that done."
Making three straight bowl games for the first time in more than 10 years - now that's something that would bring a smile to any Spartan fan's face.
GETTING TO KNOW Joel Nitchman:
Favorite place on campus: Beaumont Tower
Favorite class: CJ 491 with Professor Pizarro
Pregame song: I don't have one.
Favorite TV show: The Office
Favorite movie: Transformers 2
Favorite sport other than football: Baseball
Favorite NFL team: Detroit Lions
This feature was originally published in the Oct. 24 edition of Michigan State Football Gameday Magazine.