Jason Ivester

Call him Buddha, AC or Alex, Just Make Sure You Call Him Great

Alex Collins displayed greatness with his final touchdown in the Liberty Bowl. The Arkansas running back saved maybe the best for last with 185 yards and three touchdowns. His 14-yarder to clinch the victory was vintage Collins.

They call him Buddha. I never really came to use that nickname for Alex Collins, the great junior tailback for the Arkansas football team. I can't tell you why. He was just AC or Alex for me.

But I will tell you that there was something magical about the wonderful personality of the 5-11, 215-pounder from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and South Plantation High School.

It started when Collins defied his mother Andrea's wishes by picking Arkansas over Miami, her favorite. When she ran out of the signing ceremony with the letter-of-intent papers, Collins was ready with another set and soon found his estranged father to sign.

AC is a good enough nickname. That's perfect for the coolness with the way he handled everything, always smiling, always looking for a youngster to befriend or the next social setting to become the focal point. Alex works, too, kind of the way those soccer fans reference the greats only by one name. Pele, Maradona or Messi. When I take notes in a game play by play, I write only Alex.

The one thing I'll emphasize, AC didn't like to be the focal point in all settings. He was never comfortable with interviews. One-on-one, he was great. But he'd beg out of the group interviews that seem to be the norm for what college football has become. He did well in that setting, but always was a reluctant participant. There was some introvert in him.

That was never an issue when his athletic ability was on display. Whether it was football, learning lacrosse in high school or any other sport that was introduced, AC had IT and could handle the challenge. He only played football two years in high school but gained 1,786 yards and scored 28 touchdowns as a junior then as a senior made 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing three games because of injury.

Rated as the top running back in Florida and tops in the nation by at least one service, Collins came to Arkansas mainly because he was already in love with Bret Bielema from his Wisconsin days. Bielema and UA assistant Charlie Partridge both had a great relationship with AC's high school coach and mentor, Doug Gatewood. It was Gatewood who came to the Missouri game, just in case it was AC's last at Arkansas. As it turned out, it was. Collins has skipped his last year with the Hogs to declare for the NFL draft, as most expected.

What you have to admit about Alex, he got better with age. Like a good wine, he saved the best for last. His 185-yard game against Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl was his best. It was also his 10th game over 100 yards for the season, tying Darren McFadden's school record. His three TDs gave him 20 for the season, breaking Bill Burnett's school record of 19 set in 1969.

Collins finished the season with 1,577 yards pushing his career total to 3,703 yards, second only to McFadden's 4,590. He topped 1,000 yards in all three seasons.

I'll go back to August of his freshman year when Bielema opened the first scrimmage of camp to the public. I sat in the center of the west stands about 40 rows up. After about 10 plays, Collins trotted onto the field and took a handoff for a sweep to the right. He circled right end, juked the strong safety just past the line of scrimmage and sailed a smooth 20 yards before the free safety bumped him out of bounds with a TD saving hit.

OK, we have a star, I thought. So did the man about 10 feet to my right. He yelped in glee. So did others around the stadium. Applause broke out. A fan favorite was born.

The next Monday doing statewide radio with Bo Mattingly, there were the usual questions. Who is Collins like? Is he great? Will he make an impact as a freshman? Is he the best player on the team? Will he beat out Jonathan Williams?

Well, there's really been no one like him. First, those dreadlocks hang out the back of his helmet and flop as he makes his cuts. He sinks his hips and glides like a Felix Jones, but better. There's the great vision of a craftsman type runner. And, there is power in his thighs. All of that turned out exactly right.

I've always said there is nothing like the athletic ability of an SEC tailback. There is power, great quickness and vision. The SEC tailback may be the greatest athlete in the world. The best thing I could say about Alex after that first scrimmage, it was obvious that he's a natural SEC tailback.

Then began the process of molding him into greatness. It was clear that Collins could challenge Bielema. Never malicious with anything he did, Collins could roll in on his own time. He might skip meals and have a hard time making it through a grueling practice or weight lifting session. He might forget to tell the right people that he had a makeup test, skipping a lifting session. He might not think he needed rehab after a tough game. He'd just get by with his academic requirements.

And, there was always this: Alex Collins is the perfect ambassador in the community for the football team. He signed every autograph, was the hit in every social setting and was the constant source of pride for fans. Bielema said there's never been a player who generated more thank you notes for the way he conducted his business away from campus.

Alex delighted fans as he worked as a host as a summer job at the Catfish Hole. Some worried that he was working there the night after the Missouri game this season when he showed up at the Catfish Hole. He wasn't working. He was just holding court, doing what Alex does. No one sparkles the way Alex did in that setting.

There was frustration in Bielema's voice during the offseason after AC's second year with the Hogs when the head coach said, "I want people to write me a letter about how great a player he is, not how much they loved the way he signed autographs or socialized in a second grade class room."

In other words, Bielema thought there was more on the table for Collins to give in football, if he took care of his diet, got his body right and matured in his study habits as far as the opposition's tape. Could he protect the football a little better? Could he hit all of the right holes every time? And, could he improve his academics?

Sometime early last summer, it all hit home with Collins. Sometime in the offseason program with strength coach Ben Herbert the diet got right. His body changed. His dedication to becoming the perfect teammate clicked. As Bielema said after the Liberty Bowl, Collins grew close to his teammates. He matured. He blossomed as a football player.

Running backs coach Jemal Singleton got the challenge of correcting the ball security flaws. Collins bought in with his new mentor. He also began to study the game tape and the blocking scheme in detail. He learned the key man to beat at the second level and was intent on doing just that. He got better and better as a craftsman. He put all of his ability on display and began to show some jets that weren't there when his body wasn't perfectly in tune his first two seasons.

And, the yards just kept on coming, along with touchdowns. There was the 80-yard burst against LSU that may have been the fastest Collins has ever looked on a football field. All of those jets on the LSU defense were no match for Collins as he sprinted to pay dirt in Tiger Stadium, silencing 102,000.

Then there was the Liberty Bowl and a matchup with a good Kansas State front four. The Wildcats were missing Will Geary, a good defensive tackle. But that was supposed to be a position of depth. There was All Big Eight tackle Travis Britt to anchor that unit and two fantastic ends. Collins just kept making people miss, running through arm tackles the Wildcats never miss.

And, there was the beautiful drive in the fourth quarter that sealed the game. Just after Brandon Allen found Hunter Henry on a 43-yard pass to erase third-and-13, Collins got the ball from the 14-yard line. He burst through the middle after dodging the linebacker. There was a broken arm tackle, then another. There was Britt, a hulking tackle, just inside the 5-yard line zooming in for the hit. Collins gave him a little move and exploded with a layout at the goal line. He extended the ball to the goal line.

Generally, the opposition does not acknowledge a great play by their foe. They do anything to say it was something they did wrong and they could correct given another chance. Not this time. Britt, an acdemic All-American, had a tip of the cap for Collins in the post-game media session.

"What I noticed about Alex is he has great vision especially when he hits the hole," Britt said. "And his offensive line did a great job ... Unfortunately, I missed the tackle at the goal line for Alex to score. They just made the plays when they needed to."

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder was asked about Collins and the preparation the Wildcats had for the Arkansas running back.

"I don't think it was anything different than what we saw on video tape," Snyder said. "He is a very explosive young guy. He runs downhill extremely well and he can make you miss. He is an extremely talented young guy.

"You look across and you have a plethora of exciting and talented running backs in the SEC and he is at the top of the list. He is a talented young guy ... he is one of those guys who has a lot of talent in terms of changing direction and has a lot of athletic ability that sometimes goes unnoticed when you are carrying that kind of size around. He can handle his own. He can run down the field hard and make you miss when he gets out on the edge and he did."

There can't be a better finishing run than the one Collins made in the Liberty Bowl. It did in the Wildcats in a 14-0 fourth quarter for the Hogs. The game was over at that point and the 8,000 in purple began to empty out of the stadium with 12:04 showing on the Liberty Bowl clock.

It was a touchdown run for the ages. Some say Collins broke five tackles on that run. There were at least that many Wildcats with a shot at him, although none did more than make him go sideways a foot only to have him accelerate even faster with the next step. He did what Alex Collins does, give you a hip, then shift and jump forward a little faster. It's great athletic ability. It's power. It's an SEC tailback.

I wasn't at the 1960 Gator Bowl when All-American Jim Mooty helped Frank Broyles beat his Georgia Tech mentor, the great Bobby Dodd, with a 19-yard clinching touchdown in a 14-7 victory. But the oldtimers say it was one of the great touchdown runs in UA history. Mooty ran through defenders and just got stronger the closer he got to the end zone. It was a display of speed, quickness and power.

If it was better than what AC did at the Liberty Bowl, here's a tip of the cap to Mooty. I bet there was no one with Georgia Tech who could toast it any better than Travis Britt did for Collins on Saturday night in Memphis. There were 45,000 Razorback fans yelping just like that guy next to me did three years ago the first time Collins touched the ball in a scrimmage. It was greatness.

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