Season 8 of the BOOM Football 7-on-7 season has been halted due to the global pandemic COVID-19. The organization’s general manager J.R. Niklos took time this week to discuss his past playing days and ways for athletes to keep busy during these unusual times. Niklos himself was a 3x All-American at Western Illinois before playing 6 years in the NFL. He is currently the owner and Sports Performance coach at Acceleration Sports Performance along with serving as General Manager to the nation's premier 7-on-7 organization.
When did you start playing wide receiver?
I always wanted to play Wide Receiver but was never good enough to play it until my Freshman year of High School. After my 8th grade year of playing offensive line, I trained harder, ate healthier, and was finally able to make the switch.
Do you recommend a specific type of glove?
My favorite glove is the adidas adizero. It is light enough that I can feel my fingertips touch the ball, but has enough grip to secure the tough catches.
Hardest working receiver you ever played with or against?
Jerry Rice. He was always known as the "first one to practice, last one to leave". I played with Jerry in Oakland which was his 17th year in the league. Even then, he stayed at least 30 minutes after every practice to work on the things he felt he needed to improve on.
Best pass catcher you've ever worked with?
I've been blessed to play with Hall Of Famers like Jerry Rice, Torry Holt, Issac Bruce, Tim Brown, and Randy Moss. You can't be a Hall Of Fame WR without amazing hands. I would give the edge to Randy Moss because of his catch range and ability to attack the ball. Cowboy rookie CeeDee Lamb, who played with us with BOOM, is one athlete that resembles Randy's ability to attack the ball. Current High School athlete that has the same skill set is Kaleb Brown from St. Rita. With huge hands, Kaleb has the ability to "moss" opponents one hand better than most can do with two.
Best route running you've ever worked with? Why?
Torry Holt was the best route runner I ever played with. Coach Martz was very specific on how he wanted his routes. If he wanted a 10.5 yard dig and you ran a 10.4 yard dig, best believe you were getting an earful in the film room. Torry was always where he was supposed to be. He had amazing body control and route efficiency. Mikey Dudek and Jordan Westerkamp were two athletes that had the ability to get open in the tightest of windows. Current High School athlete that reminds me of Torry Holt is Nazareth's Tyler Morris with his smooth route running and vision.
Biggest piece of advice you’d give an athlete during COVID-19?
This is your time to separate yourself from the competition. Most athletes just train when it is convenient or because it is required of them. Those who are self-motivated can really level up during the quarantine. Use this time to become a balanced WR by focusing on all 3 phases of your game: football IQ, athletic ability, and technical skill. Improve your passing game knowledge by watching film, improve your athleticism by training to enhance your performance, and improve your skill by focusing on all the details that go into a great WR.
Football IQ: Coverage recognition. Understanding Man Press, Soft Man, and Zone. Know the strengths and weaknesses of each coverage and technique.
Athletic ability: Have the speed to create vertical separation and the agility to create horizontal separation. Have the strength to be a great blocker and be able to explode out of your cuts.
Technical Skill: Have efficient foot work in your route running with the ability to decelerate into your cuts and accelerate out of your cuts with zero wasted movement. Know how and when to stem a route as well as how to stack a DB and shield him from the ball. Have the ability to catch the ball all 360 degrees outside your center of mass.
Biggest mistake young receivers make?
They skip parts of the process. Do not do what pro athletes are doing, do what you need to do to get there. Most training videos pro's put out on social media are things that showcase their talent (ladder drills, foot speed cone drills, one handed catches, etc). Don't train to showcase your talents, train to develop your talents. Often these things (route precision work, speed training, hip strength, basic ball drills) are not going to get you many likes on Instagram, but they will make sure you can't be stopped come game time.
Do receivers need a quarterback to practice catching the ball?
Definitely not. Laying on your back and throwing the ball to yourself or even throwing a tennis ball against a wall will train the connection between your brain and body to help improve your hand-eye coordination. Catching different objects other than football's will teach you how to observe spin rate and how to absorb the weight of the object. Every great WR instinctively turns his hands into the catch because of what he sees in the spiral and tip location.
Should people be running routes alone?
100% yes. Being alone allows you to experiment without judgement. You can practice releases, stemming/sticking your routes, and accelerating out of your breaks. Being alone allows you to take extreme risks in your technique without the fear of being exposed. We learn best by our failures and it is hard to willingly fail in front of your peers.
How many footballs should you catch a day?
My number was 100. I felt if I was catching an additional 36,500 balls a year, the better I could bounce back from a drop because my drop/catch ratio was so low. Catching consistency starts with confidence and the more you do something, the more confidence you have.
What is the hardest route to run?
From the outside, the curl route. You have to stem in a way to separate from the corner, find a window off the inside backer, and press vertical enough to create distance from the safety. From the inside, the option route, where the WR has the option to go left or right at 5-10 yards. The WR can't be too quick or he won't sell the route enough to create separation. It will also put him into another defenders zone. He also can't be too slow to sell either as the QB only has around 3 seconds to throw the ball.
Those that properly manipulate the coverage can't be stopped.
How often do high school coaches call for fades?
It is the most common route in high school. There are often mismatches in High School, so when a coach sees one, it is his first call. Very rarely will the pass be intercepted so you have a 66% success rate: it will either be caught, called for defensive pass interference, or incomplete. Definitely worth the risk in most situations.
Favorites route combos to run as a coach?
My favorite route combo is a vertical switch. Outside WR runs to the upfield shoulder of the slot defender. Slot WR presses vertical and then fades to the sideline. It is a natural rub that forces the defense to react distinctively. If the defense stays stagnant, outside WR will be open in the window. If the defense is over aggressive the slot WR will be open on the fade. If the defense plays on top of the combo the back shoulder fade from the slot defender is always wide open. It takes practice to get the 2 WR's and QB on the same page, but as soon as they get it, you'll need 4 defenders to cover 2 with all the available options.
Once the pandemic is over, Niklos and the organization are hopeful to be able to resume play. Adding another National Championship is at the top of the list once the team gets back to playing to the field and doing what they do best.
Check out J.R. Niklos' at home wide receiver training video!