“Obviously, Nate has shown up on game days and made some explosive plays for us,” coach Geoff Collins said this week as Tech prepares for a home matchup Saturday with No. 20 Ole Miss (3:30 p.m., ABC).
A year ago, McCollum had a backup role in the offense behind McGowan, but he has emerged this season. He earned a bigger spot from offensive coordinator Chip Long in the preseason and has maintained it with his seven catches, along with a swift-footed 40-yard touchdown run off a reverse against Western Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“I feel like I became a better student of the game, not just focusing on my skill,” he said. “Of course, I worked on my craft, but I feel like coming into a new offense with coach Long’s playbook, I had to figure out why we were doing certain things and how to do them in a better way.”
He attributed his expanded place in the offense to off-field preparation that he learned from McGowan. For instance, through watching game video, he tries to understand how he wants to run all of his pass routes against every defensive look that a coming opponent may show.
McCollum demonstrated the reason that Sims has looked for him so often – at least nine targets through two games – in a two-play sequence against Clemson. On a second-and-3 in the first quarter, Clemson brought blitz pressure to tighten Sims’ window. McCollum recognized the Tigers’ zone, ran a short hitch into a hole in the defense and turned back to Sims, who was delivering to McCollum before he had completely turned around. The 9-yard catch converted the first down.
On the next play, against zone coverage again on first-and-10, McCollum ran a deep crossing route into a window and was able to reach back to make the catch when Sims’ throw arrived a little behind him.
McCollum had two significant contributions against Western Carolina, the touchdown off the reverse and a 29-yard punt return.
“We’ve been (practicing the reverse) every day, hundreds of times,” McCollum said. “So I was ready for (Long) to pull it out. He finally pulled it out. It was a big play.”
With the help of a backfield block from Sims and downfield help from guard Pierce Quick, McCollum sped around the corner and down the west sideline for a 40-yard touchdown. Hurdling over a fallen Quick, McCollum had to step delicately to stay in bounds.
“There’s no way I was going out of bounds,” McCollum said.
McCollum’s punt return took him back through the middle of Western Carolina’s coverage unit. He also had another return for 14 yards, a major contribution as part of a unit that has not been as productive in recent seasons. He was named Tech’s special-teams player of the week for his effort.
“I’ve been working on my fundamentals,” McCollum said. “I want to get positive yards on punt return. Any positive yards is good.”
Seeking an edge is of such importance to McCollum that he has even been willing to revisit perhaps his lowest moment on the field at Tech. Against Duke in 2020, McCollum was the punt returner and was positioned near Tech’s goal line before one punt. He moved up to about the 12-yard line, but misjudged the flight of the ball, backpedaled and fell to the ground as he caught it. The ball came loose and rolled into the end zone, where Duke recovered for a touchdown.
“I’ve gone back and watched that play a bunch of times,” he said. “First, I wasn’t supposed to catch the ball either way because it would have pinned us, but I’ve watched it a lot. I never want to put my team in a bad position.”
Through two games this season, with a mindful approach, it’s been the opposite.