GREEN BAY – When the Packers took a running back in the seventh round of the recent NFL Draft, it caught Aaron Jones' attention.
When he learned that Lew Nichols came from Central Michigan, it really piqued his interest.
"I saw the school and I'm like, 'Hey, my running back coach is the running back coach there,'" Jones said. "Then it came out that it was for sure and I'm like, 'Man, that's a small world.'"
The coach to whom Jones referred is Cornell Jackson, who was his position coach for his entire college career at Texas-El Paso. Shortly thereafter, Jackson moved on to Central Michigan and coached Nichols for his entire career there.
The connection prompted an immediate call from Jackson to Jones, as the two have stayed close throughout Jones' Pro Bowl-worthy career in Green Bay.
"He was so happy," Jones said. "He was like, 'I can't believe I got two guys in the league on the same team. That's insane.'"
Jones and Nichols have since chatted briefly, too, upon Nichols' arrival for rookie minicamp. But to Nichols his new teammate wasn't exactly a stranger.
Jackson would show his running backs at Central Michigan film of Jones on occasion, so Nichols knew something about the type of player he is. At 5-10, 220, Nichols is a bit thicker body type than Jones (5-9, 208), but he couldn't ask for a better mentor.
"Coach Jackson talked a lot about Aaron, because we ran a lot of similar plays," Nichols said. "Him just having that ability to escape and make something out of nothing definitely stood out to me about his game."
Nichols will now work to stand out in his own right as a rookie battling Patrick Taylor and Tyler Goodson for the No. 3 spot in the Packers' backfield behind Jones and AJ Dillon.
Running backs coach Ben Sirmans called it a "real deal" competition that'll take a lot into account, including what each of the candidates brings to the offense situationally.
"Right now you've got three different type of backs," Sirmans said, referring to Taylor, Goodson and Nichols. "Special teams may even play a huge role in making that decision for us."
The traits Nichols learned from Jackson he wants to bring to his NFL career include a steadiness to be the same guy every day and an attention to detail. Nichols said those qualities defined Jackson as his coach, so it's not a surprise they describe Jones as well.
"As a young player coming in, he was on me, and I remember Aaron saying he was on him when he first came in as a freshman," Nichols said. "But Coach Jackson is very consistent. Every day you know what you're going to get. You're never going to go out on the field and not know what your assignment is."
Had Nichols, statistically speaking, been more consistent in college, he might've been drafted sooner than the final round. In 2021, he led the FBS with 1,848 rushing yards on 341 carries. His 142.2 yards per game also topped the country, and he rushed for 16 TDs on his way to Mid-American Conference offensive player of the year honors.
Then last year, his production dropped to 601 yards and six TDs on 177 attempts, as injuries forced him to miss some games and play at less than peak form in others. Central Michigan also had sent two draft picks to the NFL from its 2021 offensive line.
"Probably so," Nichols said when asked if the fall off pushed him down draft boards. "That's reasonable, once you see the numbers change from one year to the other.
"It's in the past now. I haven't really done too much thinking about it. What happened in the past, in college, doesn't matter now, no matter how many yards I rushed for. I'm just really moving forward to focus on this opportunity I have right now."
In that vein, Jackson already has warned Jones that Nichols will insist on knowing everything he needs to know, and then some, about the playbook.
"He said he reminds himself a lot of me in the way that he attacks things," Jones said of Jackson's assessment. "He's always asking questions. He was like, 'You may turn and be like, "How does this guy keep asking questions?" He's just trying to figure it all out.'"
As he transitions to the faster, more intense NFL game, Nichols is quick to point out that he must "be ready to learn." Whether or not he's focused on what the Packers' depth chart looks like, the opportunity he's walking into is one that not many seventh-round picks necessarily get.
"It's just a blessing and I have to make the most of it, competing and earning everybody's trust and respect," he said. "That's definitely where my mindset is at."