Collins Eager For First Turn At First Base

For the past three college seasons practically all of Ryan Collins' appearances at first base came via hitting his way on. But by no means are the defensive aspects of that bag unfamiliar to this old Dog. "I played a bunch of first base in high school," Collins reminds. "It really wasn't that big of a move for me."

That mentioned move being the change of Collins' positioning for this senior season. As Mississippi State prepares for this weekend's Diamond Dog debut, Collins is now the first name Coach John Cohen calls for first base. It's likely not a full-time change for Collins who remains very much in the rotation for his prior rightfielding job.

Then again, there are many good reasons to project this as a case of right Dog at the right time for the most obvious open job on the Bulldog infield. To Collins' credit he's picked up the old paces without a serious preseason stumble.

"I mean, it had been a while and it took a little while to get the rust off. But other than that, it almost after a week or so felt normal."

Moving someone this late in a college career might not seem normal. But then for the past few State seasons the first base job was held by an unusually fine player. No sooner had Connor Powers graduated than competition for this spot was on, with a variety of options and opportunities. Rotation catcher Cody Freeman has some first-sack experience and needs to be in the batting order on days he isn't backstopping. Third baseman Jarrod Parks has been prepped to come across the diamond if needed to stay in the order as well when Nick Vickerson—who assuredly will be batting daily—takes the spot. And of course there are touted freshmen Daryl Norris and Wes Rea, the future for the position.

So for Collins to emerge ahead of this preseason pack reflects just what the senior has done in drills and scrimmages. "He's been phenomenal," Coach John Cohen said.

For his part Collins aw-shucks the status, while acknowledging this is not an ordinary sort of switch. "You don't normally see a guy go from last year actually playing some center field to now playing first base this year. It's kind of a big jump. But I think it will work out pretty good."

Not just for him, either. Having a fast first baseman only adds to the general athleticism of State's possible infield combinations…and in 2011 that is no small matter. The same new bats that are supposed to dramatically reduce longball power in college baseball will put a premium now on short-ball. And by extension, quick and well-coordinated infield defense. Collins obviously has outfielding speed running down balls in the air but it is his comfort factor with quick footwork that should be of aid now.

Oh, and about the bats… Much has been said and written on the subject since the newly-designed sticks arrived last fall. Is it really that much of a change as alleged? Collins affirms.

"It's a big difference. You're not going to see as many home runs, they're going to be cut in half I'd venture to say. In some aspects wood is better than these bats!" He can say that after summer baseball stints with wood, by the way. Yet these revised bats might actually be even deader than dead wood.

"The first time I swung it I just couldn't believe it. It was ridiculous the amount of change that had happened in just the matter of a year." Good change or bad? "Bad! You'd hit it and crush one and ‘oh I got that one' and then it isn't going anywhere! The ball just doesn't jump off the bat in the same way. It sounds strange, and the feel is different."

Yet lots of scrimmage swings and B.P. cuts have made Collins & Company more comfortable, and Collins notes that a second generation is already out with adjustments bat manufacturers made since fall results were evaluated. No, these aren't about to make the '11 Bulldogs into sluggers either…but that's no bad thing per Collins.

"As Coach said, for our team it's going to benefit us more than anything. With our field and our pitching staff, the athleticism of our defense, I think it can really play into our favor."

Such as the renewed emphasis on the short game. It's an irony of course that Cohen played on three of the biggest-swinging squads in Mississippi State history in 1988-90, and his Kentucky teams thrived on using short fences to pile up numbers. Yet even in Lexington he valued on-base percentages over slugging averages; now back at Dudy Noble Field he is turning the Bulldogs into a small-ball offense. Why, even the bunt is about to be emphasized.

"It's going to be huge for us," said Collins. "Looking at how the team has transitioned, we're more of a speed-oriented team and we're going to be able to play small ball. We're going to be able to get base hits, hit behind runners, and do the small things that will win."

Speaking of ‘small' things, with no pun intended Collins provided another characteristic of the 2011 ballclub. A scan of the roster points out how the average Diamond Dog is a size or so less than preceding squads. It's as if the team was left in the dryer too long and came out shrunken to size for how Cohen believes the game is to be best played at Dudy Noble Field now.

Collins (6-1, 195) certainly sees the changes.

"Just kind of looking back on it, when I came in as a freshman I was one of the smaller guys on the team; we had guys like Andy Rice and Jeff Flagg, and Russ Sneed was our shortstop. I've kind of transitioned from being average-sized to now I'm actually one of the bigger guys! We're definitely not going to be one of the biggest teams in the SEC but we're going to be better-suited for our field and talents."

Collins has proven his outfielding talents the past three seasons and can expect to take more turns out in that pasture this spring as well. But if veteran Brent Brownlee can stay healthy, and freshman C.T. Bradford lives up to sky-high expectations, well, add in wide-ranging senior centerfielder Jaron Shepherd and that area of the defense is stacked. Speedy, too. Include Collins and you have the makings of a real relay team here.

"We had some really good speed in the outfield last year," Collins said. "And you look at it this year, I think we're going to be faster. I know if I'm playing first base and we have C.T, Jaron, and Brent, those three guys are faster than I am! We will have one of the fastest and most athletic outfields in the country, I don't see many balls falling our outfield. Guys are going to run them down."

Run down balls, run the bases, just run period is Collins' forecast for 2011. "Now we've got a lot of team speed, pretty much everywhere besides maybe catcher." Which Freeman and Wes Thigpen presumably take no offense at; somebody has to set the other end of the speed curve after all. Otherwise, "Everybody has better than average speed and it's going to help us. We don't have guys like Russ and Connor that are going to hit 10, 15 home runs. But I think everybody is going to be able to hit the gaps and get the extra base when we need to." Or, want to.

One item everybody involved openly wants for Mississippi State is just to win again. It's been a grind for Collins and Freeman, the only fourth-year seniors left on the roster, as they went through the 2008 regime change and have tried to get the program on a better pace since. There's a fair number of juniors who also have known little but frustration at Dudy Noble Field. These are the players their coach means most when he talks about a team that deserves to win and to reach postseason play.

Interestingly though, even the older Dogs seem to have a fresh outlook this season. Maybe it is all the sophs and frosh on the roster and their new energy. Perhaps it is the feeling that a lot of things are falling into place. And of course there is always the attitude that hard work will be rewarded eventually…and as Collins notes, "You can ask anybody that has been around our program the last couple of years, we've outworked everybody."

Now it's time for all the long labors to combine with the influx of new talent and make it count on the scoreboard and record. Collins is as optimistic as anyone, maybe more so.

"I think everybody is excited. Just being out there and seeing what we've got on the field; the amount of talent we have and the freshmen that have come in and the talent they have. Especially for us older guys you can see it, you've been around and can realize wow, we have the talent this year and the ability to go make the SEC Tournament, to make a regional, and to make a run at it. That's the most exciting part right there."

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