Studious Collins turning into star

The enigmatic safety is using a new approach, and it has paid off with interceptions in three consecutive games.

Nick Collins' many detractors are silent now.

Collins was perhaps the Packers' biggest enigma since being drafted in the second round in 2005.

It probably didn't help that he was awarded the No. 36 made famous by one of the finest and most popular safeties of a generation, LeRoy Butler. The bigger issue, though, was Collins' lack of production. In 45 career games entering this season — all starts — Collins had four interceptions and probably twice as many drops.

Last year, when Collins should have been blossoming, he appeared to have taken a step back. In 13 starts, Collins didn't intercept a pass, force a fumble or recover a fumble. Meanwhile, in those three missed games, understudy Aaron Rouse intercepted two passes.

Certainly, Rouse would challenge Collins during training camp. Might even replace him, right?

Not exactly, and not even close.

With three interceptions in the first four games, Collins has matched his single-season high set in 2006. He's not about to shout "I told you so," though his more relaxed demeanor in the locker room compared to during training camp speaks volumes.

"That's people looking from the outside in," Collins said. "I don't worry about the critics on the outside. I'm just being me."

Collins looks as athletic as ever, but his instincts seem so far advanced compared to last season. That's because Collins has become a more studious player, watching game film at Lambeau Field and at home like he's Roger Ebert.

It's something he learned from cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris, and never was it more evident than last week's game at Tampa Bay. Collins made a leaping interception of an out route intended for Antonio Bryant by anticipating it as if he were in the Buccaneers' huddle.

Collins has raised his game in other areas, too. He's the ringleader of the secondary, and the added film study is paying dividends in keeping them organized through injuries to Harris and sidekick Atari Bigby. Plus, Collins is playing through a bruised lower back.

At one moment, Collins says he's "feeling great." At the next, though, Collins admits he's not at full speed, making his streak of three consecutive games with an interception all the more impressive.

"I've been fighting through it since the Dallas game," Collins said, "but the trainers are doing a great job of keeping me healthy and giving me an opportunity to just go out and play. It's something I'm going to have to deal with the whole season, but I'm prepared for it."

Asked if the injury is frustrating in light of his new-and-improved approach, Collins smiles.

"Hey, that's why we're football players," Collins said matter-of-factly. "You're going to get nicked up. You've just got to deal with it. It's going to let you know if you're a true player or not. If you can play through your nicks, people look at it."

Suddenly, Collins looks like one of the young players the Packers might have to reward with a contract extension. Collins' contract expires at the end of next season, and with his new study habits combining with his toughness and athleticism, he looks like a long-term answer rather than a long-term conundrum.

"I'm happy. I think everybody else is happy, too," Collins said. "But it's not about me. I'm just out there trying to play ball."

Bill Huber is editor of Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com


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