The recipient of the Bronko Nagurski Award, honoring the best defensive player in college football, Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins had an illustrious season in 2020. Collins stuffed the stat sheets, recording 54 total tackles, four sacks, forced two fumbles and intercepted four passes for the Golden Hurricane.
But how exactly does the best defensive player in the nation end up at Tulsa?
Collins grew up in the area and was a quarterback and linebacker in high school, starting on both sides of the ball for all four years. Posting an impressive record of 41-12, Collins led his team to an undefeated 14-0 season as a senior that resulted in Hominy High School winning the Class A state title.
Regardless of this success, bigger schools did not take notice and Collins accepted his lone Division One offer from the University of Tulsa.
In 2018, he took over a starting spot early in the year and made the Freshman All-America teams for many outlets, including USA Today. Picking up where he had left off, Collins had another big season in 2019, racking up 97 total tackles.
In 2020 he had his best season to date, leading Tulsa to a 6-2 record and a close AAC Championship loss to No.6 Cincinnati. Now Collins will bring his game to the NFL.
The first thing to take note of when evaluating Collins is his impressive size. At over 6-3 and almost 260 pounds, he looks more like a defensive end than an off ball linebacker. Collins owns impressive short-area twitch and springiness, allowing him to change directions quickly and smoothly.
Being so light on his feet, Collins also possesses the burst required to flow with runs outside of the tackle box, making him a rangy backer at the second level. When tasked with taking on blocks he thrives, as linemen are rarely able to impact him due to him keeping his frame clean with his hands and just his size. Collins has heavy hands that he uses to stab blockers with a long arm when he rushes off the edge. He can stack and shed thanks to his length and violent hands that he makes use of to disengage effectively.
The hard-hitting linebacker likes to deliver the boom when he gets to the ball carrier. Thanks to his size and leverage when tackling this is often successful but he will have to wrap up more consistently at the next level. Running backs are bigger and stronger in the NFL now, so it definitely comes in handy.
Collins is a smart player who processes and triggers quickly for the most part. He is consistently in position and does not abandon his responsibilities within the defense by biting on fakes. His length is a big asset in coverage as he will hover in underneath zones and bat down or intercept passes.
As an instinctual zone defender, Collins has a great feel for receivers coming behind him and plays routes high to low when put in conflict. He does not look like a player that has the consistent quick twitch to keep up with smaller scat backs in man consistently. Beyond that, there are not many holes in Collins’ game.
One might be his speed when he is in the open field as he is not the fastest when he opens his stride which is not a substantial issue for a backer of his style. Collins projects as a versatile second-level defender who can find a role in any scheme. His size and block-shedding ability enables him to play significant snaps on the line of scrimmage.
Due to his ability to blitz or drop, Collins will be great for defenses that like to disguise their looks. The more he is asked to do, the more confusing he will be for opposing offenses and the more value he will bring to the team that drafts him. He should find a role on any defense in his rookie season and be an impact player early in his career.
Showing off his athleticism, Collins can change directions on this counter run and make the tackle:
As a gap shooter, he has a quick trigger and gets into the backfield in a hurry. Here he brings down the back for a safety:
Even when he is not kept clean at the second level, Collins gets sideline to sideline. Here he quickly disposes of the tight end and helps on the tackle:
Hits like this one are all over Collins’ tape. Notice him getting lateral again:
How valuable his length is, becomes evident on this play where he bats a pass in the red zone:
Collins shows his zone coverage ability as he does not overrun the shallow from the back underneath but recognizes the slot receiver coming behind him on an over route, taking him away:
And finally his pick-six against USF. Collins is just spying the quarterback here but once again makes a big play for Tulsa: