PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Late in the fourth quarter of Arkansas's game at Rutgers Saturday, the Razorbacks' Alex Collins stood on the sideline wearing a defeated look, staring down his first real setback as a college football player. As the Scarlet Knights ran out the clock on a 28-24 victory, Collins was left trying to figure out what went wrong.
Before Saturday's tilt in Piscataway, Collins had become the first freshman in SEC history to open his career with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games, and the first freshman to do so from any conference since Adrian Peterson with Oklahoma in 2004. Along the way, Collins had helped launch the Razorbacks to a 3-0 start in coach Bret Bielema's first season as head coach, after a disastrous 2012 which saw Arkansas finish sixth in the SEC West and win just four games under interim coach John L. Smith.
The streak came to an end against Rutgers' fifth-ranked rush defense, which limited the Plantation, FL native to just 63 yards on 16 carries. Arkansas's potent running back duo of Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams were held to just 88 yards on 28 carries, well below their combined season average.
"I just felt we didn't really have a rhythm as an offense," Collins said Tuesday. "They did a good job of holding the ball. We just couldn't get our mojo going."
It was the first bit of on-field adversity Collins had faced since joining the Razorbacks, but compared to the crazy circumstances surrounding his bizarre signing day experience, a dispiriting four-point road loss to a decent Rutgers team was nothing to brood over.
After committing to Miami during his junior year of high school, Collins decided to reopen his recruitment. Bielema, then Wisconsin's head coach, had been recruiting Collins, who took a strong interest in the Badgers' run-inclined offensive philosophy. Once Bielema seemingly shocked the college football world by leaving the three-time defending conference champions for Arkansas in December, Collins shifted his focus towards Fayetteville, where Bielema was set to implement his trademark smashmouth scheme. "Being a running back, that's the stuff you like to hear," Collins said. "Just to hear that you're going to be running the ball a lot, that gets a running back excited."
At Wisconsin, Bielema developed a reputation for producing some of the best rushing attacks in the country, a brand of power football predicated on gargantuan offensive linemen and instinctive (often bruising) backs. Bielema's teams not only ran the ball frequently -- during his seven seasons at the school, Wisconsin ranked no lower than 13th nationally in rushing attempts -- they did so prolifically, ranking in the Big Ten's top three in rushing during three consecutive conference championship seasons (2010-12). Players such as P.J. Hill, John Clay, Montee Ball and James White -- all of whom were recognized, at minimum, as All-Conference honorees during their time at Wisconsin -- are among a group of hard-running backs Bielema helped develop in Madison, and Collins, a five-sport athlete rated third in 2013's class of running backs by Scout.com, was on track toward becoming the next -- except at a new location.
As signing day approached, Collins had made up his mind, and planned to fax in his national letter of intent two days after verbally committing to the Razorbacks. His mother, hoping Collins would join Miami instead, seized Collins' NLI and fled the school hosting a signing day ceremony for him. The next day -- before Collins' mother hired an attorney to challenge his college choice -- his father, Johnny Collins, signed Collins' NLI, and sat alongside him at a press conference formalizing his decision, finally putting an end to a wild recruitment.
Less than eight months later, Collins has developed into the SEC's most promising young running back. His disappointing game against Rutgers obscures how quickly, and how successfully, Collins has adapted to the college game. At South Plantation high school, where he rushed for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior, football came easy to him. Collins was so physically dominant, that he said he could take plays off and get away with "jogging" through holes, needing to accelerate only once he broke into open field.
While Collins' impressive numbers so far might imply otherwise, running against college defenses isn't quite as simple. There are intricate schemes to memorize, game tapes to study, tendencies to learn, faster and stronger players to run against. And when he bursts through holes, Collins needs to go full speed the moment he touches the ball. It's an entirely different game.
"Everything just happens a lot faster," he said. "I have to make my decision a lot faster. And once I make it, I have to give 110 percent just to try to break free every time."
Just four games into the season, Collins' teammates can't help but be impressed by what they've seen. "Every week you can see his confidence growing, and he's definitely going to keep getting better as the season goes on," said Williams.
Said cornerback Tevin Mitchel, "I see a guy that wants to be the best. He works hard in practice every day and he really wants it. He's going to be a great back."
The Razorbacks begin a brutal stretch of conference games starting with this weekend's home tilt against 10th-ranked Texas A&M. Road trips to Florida and Alabama, bookending a home date with 12th-ranked South Carolina, follow over the next three weeks. The Razorbacks look vastly improved over last season's team, but still have a long way to go before challenging the upper reaches of the SEC. The Aggies will be a good litmus test.
"I feel that we have a good enough team that we can beat these teams, so I'm just excited to prove to everybody how good we are," Collins said.
The small hiccup against Rutgers did not shake Collins' dauntless mindset. He's confident in his ability to succeed against a collection of rugged SEC defensive lines in the coming weeks.
As he should be.
"I'm ready," he said.