Right now, Sandy Nichols is as important to Coach Floyd Keith and Howard University as Joe Theismann is to Coach Joe Gibbs and the Redskins.

Nichols came on to lead the Bison to five victories in their final six games last season and was the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference offensive leader. His backup, Brian Sloane, is the only other member of the team with experience at quarterback. But Sloane hurt his back in a scrimmage two weeks ago and was unable to practice until yesterday.

Nichols will be the starter Saturday when the Bison open their season at the University of Maine. Keith also hopes he will be the finisher.

"I'm a little worried about our depth at quarterback now," Keith said last week. "The other three kids on the roster are freshmen. Sandy is our trigger man. As long as he improves, we'll improve."

Nichols spent his entire freshman year as the fourth and last quarterback on the team's depth chart.

He was mostly on his own as a quarterback at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Va. When he arrived at Howard, he had to master such skills as reading defenses, footwork, throwing to specific areas of the field and, of course, taking snaps from center.

"I didn't expect to contribute anything when I was a freshman," Nichols said, "but I felt I had learned the system well enough to play a down or two.

"My first play in college and I fumbled the snap. Last year, I felt I was ready but I didn't start off like it. On my second snap, I did okay: I completed my first pass."

After little initial playing time (two plays in his first two games) and some inconsistency, Nichols finally beat out senior Ray Gray and started against Delaware State in Howard's fifth game of the year. He has started ever since.

"That was it; I finally got my chance to prove what I could do," Nichols said. "I had a good game against Delaware State and my confidence grew. I still was a sophomore and feeling my way, but I could see myself making progress."

With Nichols' guidance, Howard turned what had begun as a disastrous season into a respectable 6-4. He completed 66 of 119 passes for 1,160 yards with six touchdowns and nine interceptions. He ran for 234 yards.

Despite Nichols' No. 1 offensive ranking in the MEAC, he still is rated behind South Carolina State's Desmond Gaston and Florida A & M's Nathaniel Koonce as the conference's best quarterback.

"It was a nice honor to beat out those guys and I'd like to repeat as the conference leader," Nichols said. "I'd also like to lead the MEAC in passing and percentage. Above all, I'd like to see us win a few more. It doesn't mean much to throw for 200 and 300 yards if you don't win the game."

Keith said he decided to go with Nichols midway through the 1981 season because "he had begun to progress and show enough poise to play more.

"He's much better now. He reads defense, handles the ball well and places the ball better," Keith said. "For us to do well, Sandy has to play well. I'm still not quite satisfied with our passing game yet. It's just not where it has to be. But our offense is not easy; a lot of option and play action."

Nichols has no problem with Keith's offensive philosophy.

"I'm a better passer than a runner, but I like running the option," Nichols said. "There's a time to run and a time to throw. We'll do whatever it takes."