“They told me that I had all the tangibles,” Collins said. “I was valedictorian, I had a great ACT score, all my grades were right, I had no off-field issues. Everything was perfect, I played well enough. They just said that my school was too small and my level of competition was not high enough to translate over to the D-1 level and they didn’t want to take a chance on a guy like me. So, yeah, I kinda told some of those people to piss off.”
Four years later, Collins has a chance to be the first Tulsa player taken in the first round of the NFL draft since guard Steve August, who was taken by the Seattle Seahawks with the 14th selection in 1977. Only one other Tulsa player has gone in the first round in draft history, which occurred when the Chicago Cardinals took back Glenn Dobbs third in 1944.
Collins is one of the more intriguing defenders in this year’s draft class, based on how well he can move within his 6-foot-4 and 260-pound frame. One of the best plays he made in college came this past season against Tulane, when he picked off a pass and returned it 96 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
On the play, Collins crept near the line of scrimmage, hiding his body after initially looking like he might blitz. He then backed off and, seemingly out of nowhere, contorted his body to snag the pass out of midair. He then hustled the other way untouched for the winning score.
Collins, in terms of size and playing style, has been likened to former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, which obviously is a lofty comparison. NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah actually compared Collins with former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas, who Jeremiah knew during his time as a scout with the franchise during the 2000s.
“Some weeks you’d rush (Thomas) off the edge,” Jeremiah said. “Some weeks he would rush inside. You could play him off the ball. I think Zaven Collins gives you a lot of different options with things you can do with him.”
In his most recent prospect rankings, Jeremiah tabbed Collins as his 25th-best overall player, although Collins did not make an appearance in the first round of Jeremiah’s most recent mock draft, released Tuesday. During his junior season, Collins totaled four sacks, four interceptions and returned two of those picks for touchdowns.
If Collins slips out of the first round, he could be an interesting option for the Falcons to consider with the 35th overall selection. Collins said he feels comfortable jumping into any defensive scheme as long as it allows him to “run, chase down, make tackles in the backfield, be in coverage, (and) run sideline to sideline.” With Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees previously telling reporters how much he likes players who want to run and hit, Collins could be a fit for his hybrid defense incorporating 3-4 and 4-3 principles.
“Any position that allows me to run, move freely, not confine me to really one side, to let me be really involved in the defense is what’s going to best suit me mostly because I just have a knack for the football,” Collins said.
Collins is hopeful he will be a top-20 selection April 29 when the 2021 draft begins. As his college career played out, he saw his draft stock rise little by little over the three years he played to the point where the first round became a legitimate possibility.
Having made it to this point, after being overlooked from his small town, Collins is ready to prove that the coaches who passed on him were dead wrong.
“It motivates me a lot,” Collins said. “I’ve had a lot of coaches tell me I wasn’t good enough just based on really on my school’s size. ... I’m tired of being the little man, so it’s time that we kind of made a statement for Tulsa and put them back on the map because we’re just as good as anyone else out there in between the hashes.”