It’s not that often that a young football player goes from a four-year starter at quarterback in high school to winner of the Bronco Nagurski Award as the top defensive player in college football and potential first-round pick in the NFL draft. But that’s the winding road traveled by Zaven Collins of Tulsa, a freakishly athletic 6’4″, 260-pounder who has drawn comparisons to former Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher due to his rare combination of speed and size.
Despite all that Collins accomplished in high school, Tulsa was the only Division 1 school to offer Collins a scholarship, and even then, Collins was brought in as an “ATH” while the staff tried to figure out where he’d fit best. As Ed Valentine wrote for Big Blue View, Tulsa head coach Philip Montgomery said the team eventually settled on lining Collins up at WILL linebacker.
“With his frame you could see that he had great potential,” Montgomery said. “Now, the question was going to be what was that potential going to lead him to play? We just figured in the scheme that we run as our WILL linebacker his skill set allowed him to do so much. By being our WILL linebacker, we felt like we could use him in our blitz packages, bring him off the edge, bring him up the middle, use him in drop situations. Like I said, a very intelligent player. So, being able to do some disguise things with him and allow him to use his athleticism. We just felt like having him off the ball allowed him to run and move and really affect the game more.”
That decision proved to be a wise one. In 2020, Collins tallied 53 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, four interceptions and a forced fumble. Three of those sacks came in one of Tulsa’s biggest games of the year—a season-opening loss to Oklahoma State.
With the size of a defensive end and the wheels of a box safety, Collins has a skill-set that doesn’t really come along every day—and as Joe Marino reported for The Draft Network, that skill-set should appeal to quite a few NFL clubs.
“Collins offers an exciting blend of size, length, power, football intelligence, and versatility that makes him a dynamic prospect for the NFL. Whether it’s defending the run, dropping into coverage, or rushing the passer,” he said, “Collins has the requisite skill set required to execute and was arguably the most dynamic defensive playmaker in college football for the 2020 season. He demonstrated notable growth in 2020, becoming a complete defender and making high-impact, clutch plays seemingly every week. He projects as an impact defender in the NFL that can make plays in a variety of ways.”
If there’s a weak spot in Collins’ game, it’s that he doesn’t have the straight-line speed that many NFL teams covet in off-ball linebackers in 2021. But as Tony Pauline wrote at Pro Football Network, Collins appears to have all the tools necessary to be an every-down linebacker.
“Collins is a game-impacting defender and one of the more understated prospects in this year’s draft,” he said. “He’s not the small run-and-chase linebacker teams prefer these days. Rather, he’s a throwback of sorts, and possesses the size as well as speed to be a pass rusher as well as play in coverage. Collins is a true three-down defender who should quickly break into a starting lineup and comes with outstanding scheme versatility.”
Collins college coach certainly believes that he can make an immediate impact in the NFL. In fact, Montgomery said he believes that his former player could merit consideration as high as the top-15 picks.
“I think he’s a game breaker type player. I think he’s a guy that you can build a team around, build a defense around, a guy that’s going to do things right on and off the field, loves the game of football and I think he’s a guy you can build around,” Montgomery said. “I think he’s definitely a first-round guy. Is he No. 10, No. 11? At what part I don’t know. I think whoever gets him he’s going to make a difference on their football team right away.”