Collins enrolled at UNC in June with the lofty expectations that come with being a four-star prospect. His talent was on display during training camp, although the mental miscues that come with learning a complex defense delayed his ability to become an immediate impact player on defense.
Linebackers coach Ron West understood that Collins would play a vital role on defense once senior weakside linebacker Travis Hughes graduated, so he put his 6-foot-1, 225-pound rookie on special teams – kick coverage – to get acclimated to the college game.
“I definitely respect him for his decision because I didn’t understand why I was starting on special teams at first,” Collins said this week. “It kind of got the butterflies out. I had a lot of doubts coming in. I knew I wasn’t as fast or as strong or had the experience, but playing on special teams I got a feel for the game, even for one play.
“The first time I ran down and put somebody on their back, I said, ‘Okay, I can do this.’”
Collins started the season as the third-team backer at Will, but as September turned to October, his playing time increased on defense. He earned his first significant dose of game action at Notre Dame and played well enough to earn more time the following week. That trend has since continued in an increasing manner.
Collins turned in a career-high eight tackles in UNC’s win over Virginia on Oct. 25 and followed that performance up with five tackles and a fumble return for touchdown against Miami last weekend.
Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said playing time has been a crucial factor in Collins’ development. He explained that Collins was limited early due to making mistakes that hurt the team, but as his concentration and preparation improved, along with special teams exposure, those miscues decreased. With that foundation properly constructed, increased playing time helped to expedite the process.
“The biggest thing is just giving him an opportunity to get the reps in a full-speed atmosphere like a ball game and seeing him develop,” West said. “You can see that he’s got a great chance to be a really good player. He’s just got to keep coming. He doesn’t have it all down. He’s just still learning it.”
Collins, who has 19 tackles on the season, told reporters the gradual progression improved his confidence and thereby helped his production. As with most freshmen, the physical demands and adjustments to speed and strength from the high school to college level were a challenge for the Charlotte, N.C. product.
Learning Koenning’s 4-2-5 scheme added another layer of difficulty. Collins said his high school only had eight plays total on defense, while UNC’s defense could have as many as eight options in one play call.
After playing significant snaps against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, it was the Virginia game when things finally clicked for Collins.
“That’s when I didn’t think as much or had so much on my mind as the game was going on,” Collins said. “I can’t remember what play it was where I relaxed, but definitely in that game, I was like, okay, I can just play football.”
Koenning and West both stress that Collins hasn’t arrived quite yet, but his progress through nine games confirms the notion that he’s the future at Will linebacker beginning in 2015.
“He’s got a world of talent and we knew that when we recruited him,” Koenning said. “He’s getting better and better and better.”
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