CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A steep learning curve hampered Cayson Collins’s production during his first two seasons at North Carolina. The junior linebacker is now up to speed and ready to contribute in Gene Chizik’s defense.
“I feel really good with this being Year Two in the defense,” Collins said following UNC’s 10th practice of spring ball. “I’m understanding the defense at a deeper level. That was one of my goals coming into this spring. I took a lot of time to figure out what I wanted to improve on and understanding the defense at a deeper level is something I highlighted.”
Collins, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound Sam linebacker out of Charlotte, N.C., has shown glimpses of his potential during the early part of his career. After notching a career-high eight tackles against Virginia in October 2014, Collins followed that performance up with five tackles and a fumble return for touchdown against Miami the next week. Last season, he racked up 38 tackles and three tackles for loss in 12 games.
Those highlights have been limited due to difficulties in learning the job, which has been aided by two different coaching staffs teaching entirely different schemes.
“My first year I really just felt like I was out here running around,” Collins said. “It was really chaotic. I probably knew three calls the entire season, especially in fall camp, when everything was happening so fast. I didn’t really feel like there was a lot of direction in what we were doing, but I was playing football. With Chizik, everything is so structured and so organized.”
Collins felt like he put in the proper amount of time watching film and reading the playbook last summer to understand Chizik’s 4-3 base scheme, yet grew frustrated as he continued to make mistakes on the field throughout the season. After the 2015 season came to a close, linebackers coach John Papuchis sat Collins down and showed him cutups of his mistakes during games.
“I saw at the start of a play where I would mess up, like where my eyes were wrong or my footwork was messed up,” Collins said. “Coming into spring, that gave me a better idea of what I needed to work on and what I needed to get better at.”
In his meeting with Papuchis, Collins expressed his concern over the confusing aspects of the defense and said the coaching staff has responded by taking “a lot more time” this spring explaining why the defense works the way it does.
Collins has spent countless hours watching his miscues on film and comparing them to how former linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad played last fall. It’s helped him better understand not only his responsibilities, but also those of his teammates. He told reporters he now knows where he’s supposed to fit against the run and where he’s supposed to drop in pass coverage.
“Right now, I feel a lot better than I did my freshman year,” Collins said. “I feel a lot better than I did my sophomore year, so I like where I am right now. I’m really happy.”
Collins is currently working with the ones at the Sam linebacker, which is similar to the weakside linebacker in most other defenses. He’s also jack backer – a pass rushing specialist in the second level – in UNC’s nickel set.