Santa Margarita High School has seen its share of former student athletes move on to the highest level of professional football.
From undrafted wide receiver Brian Finneran, who played 12 seasons in the NFL, to No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer, a quarterback with the Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals the past 13 seasons, a half dozen graduates from Santa Margarita have made their mark in the league.
Jeremy McNichols is hoping to continue that tradition.
The 2014 graduate of Santa Margarita was drafted in the fifth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on April 29. McNichols is a running back who figures to battle for the starting job during his upcoming his rookie season, especially with returning starter Doug Martin suspended the first four games of the 2017 season.
“It was like the world just came off my shoulders,” McNichols said on Idaho television station KTVB shortly after he was selected 162nd overall. “It’s been one of the most stressful times in my life and my family’s life. Just having that weight off my shoulders is a huge relief. Now I can just go play football again.”
McNichols played just one season for the Eagles after transferring from Lakewood High School in late spring of 2013. He came to Santa Margarita as a wide receiver, but the Eagles desperately needed a ball carrier to replace graduated running back Ryan Wolpin, who led the team in rushing the previous two seasons.
Harry Welch, the then-coach of the Eagles, made the career-altering decision to switch McNichols to running back. He caught on quickly, rushing for a team-leading 798 yards and eight touchdowns while also finishing third on the team with 17 receptions.
Boise State was the only school from a major conference to offer McNichols a scholarship. He accepted and headed to Idaho shortly after graduating.
The Broncos originally planned to redshirt McNichols his first season on campus, but his potential was too bright to put on hold.
“He was on the scout team and made a jump cut that made three guys fall down,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said at the time. “We were like, we should probably play him.”
Interestingly, McNichols was joined at Boise State his first season by Wolpin, who transferred from Northern Colorado and served as McNichols’ backup the past two seasons. Wolpin figures to be in the hunt for a starting role during his senior year this fall.
McNichols rushed for 1,337 yards his sophomore season and scored 26 touchdowns, which tied for second in the nation. He was even better as a junior last fall, rushing for 1,709 yards and scoring 27 touchdowns, which ranked No. 2 in the country.
McNichols announced his intention to make himself available for the NFL Draft two days before the Broncos played in the Cactus Bowl on Dec. 28. Draft forecasters predicted McNichols would be selected anywhere from the third to the fifth round.
“It’s always tough to wait. You want to go as soon as possible,” McNichols said. “But I have a good support system around me. They were like, ‘just be patient, your time is going to come. God has a plan for you, and you’re going to end up at the right spot.’ I think this is the best spot for me out of all 32 teams.”