Floyd Keith, Howard University football coach, says demoting quarterback Sandy Nichols from second to third team earlier this season was one of his best decisions. Nichols won't argue.

"That just motivated me more," said the sophomore, who became a starter in the fifth game of the season and has helped the Bison (3-3) to two straight victories.

Nichols leads the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in total offense with an average of 142.5 yards per game, 28 yards a game more than runner-up Nathaniel Koonce of Florida A & M. Although Koonce is No. 1 in the overall passing statistics, Nichols leads the conference with a 55 percent completion percentage and in total yards (774).

Nichols played in the third game of the season, a 34-6 loss to South Carolina State, after Keith removed senior Raymond Gray and freshman Brian Sloan. Nichols came in to complete six of 12 passes for 142 yards.

Since then, Nichols has completed at least 50 percent of his passes in every game. His best performance came in a 31-27 victory over Delaware State as he completed 11 of 20 for 251 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown pass to Tracy Singleton.

Nichols a 6-foot, 175-pounder from Chesapeake, Va., did not throw a pass last season, but still came into the season as the Bison's No. 2 quarterback. He dropped behind Sloan the first week of the season.

Although Keith was counting on Sloan for the future, it soon became obvious he was not ready yet. Keith called on Nichols only because he felt a change was needed.

Keith said that he saw little difference in the abilities of Gray and Nichols when he decided to make Nichols the starter. But he has been surprised with Nichols' running in the Howard option offense (he gained 74 yards on 13 carries against Delaware State).

Nichols' quickness and the gradual healing of injuries on the offensive line have improved Howard's success against the pass rush. Gray was sacked nine times by Bethune-Cookman and Nichols was sacked eight times by Florida A & M, but Nichols has been sacked only twice in the last two weeks.

Keith has been most impressed with Nichols' poise. In a 26-14 victory over Virginia State Saturday, Nichols stood in the pocket and found open receivers despite knowing he would be hit by the Trojans' blitzing linebackers.

"He stands in there real nice, doesn't he?" Keith said.

One of Nichols' biggest supporters is Gray, who, Keith said, has become "like another coach on the sidelines" since being dropped as a starter.

"We're the best of friends," Gray said of Nichols. "We try to help each other. I can help him in reading defenses. I hope he does well, but I'm in a bad predicament. I still know I can play."

Keith has not written off Gray this season.

He inserted him with less than three minutes remaining in the first half against Virginia State and Gray completed all three of his passes in taking the Bison 73 yards in four plays for a 20-0 lead.

"They just wanted me to get within field goal range," said Gray, who was replaced by Nichols at the start of the second half. "But I wanted it all."