AUSTIN, Texas — In college football, conventional thinking holds that making the transition as a true freshman only gets more difficult as that player gets closer to the ball.
So for Texas Longhorns defensive tackle Alfred Collins, who moved from defensive end to defensive tackle after a year of growth that saw him gain somewhere around 50 pounds, sliding inside posed an additional challenge beyond going against much more mature athletes.
Throughout preseason camp, Collins and fellow true freshman Vernon Broughton, who is still playing outside at defensive end, drew praise from head coach Tom Herman and their teammates, primarily for looking the part.
High expectations accompanied Collins on his short trip from Cedar Creek to Austin after choosing Texas over Oklahoma in a ceremony on National Signing Day. Then listed at 284 pounds after weighing in at the All-American Bowl in late December, Collins arrived on the Forty Acres carrying slightly over 300 pounds on his 6’5 frame and as the No. 32 prospect nationally and the No. 2 strong-side defensive end, according to the 247Sports rankings.
Those accolades made Collins the key recruiting coup for defensive line coach Oscar Giles, criticized at times for high-profile misses like K’Lavon Chaisson in 2017 and DeMarvin Leal in 2019, among others. When Collins signed, he became the highest-rated Longhorns defensive line recruit since Brenham defensive tackle Malcom Brown was ranked as the No. 9 player in the 2013 recruiting class.
The difference is immense between the Bastrop Cedar Creek product and other recent recruits — Collins has already passed older players like redshirt sophomore Daniel Carson and redshirt freshman Myron Warren, recruiting takes for Texas after Giles and the Longhorns missed on higher-rated targets.
So the expectation for Collins as soon as he arrived on campus wasn’t that he would overachieve based on his rankings out of high school, but simply accomplish the comparatively easy task of fulfilling the massive potential obvious to evaluators on college campuses and in the recruiting industry.
When Collins made his debut against UTEP as the second-string defensive tackle now tasked in Chris Ash’s defense with trying to shoot gaps more often to make plays instead of reading, reacting, and trying to keep the linebackers free by fitting their gaps.
After recording two tackles, including a sack, Collins provided a look at that potential and the expected room for growth.
No play better defined the ends of that spectrum than a 2nd and 10 play early in the second quarter.
Lined up across from UTEP redshirt sophomore right guard Elijah Klein, now a three-year starter for the Miners, Collins merely dipped his shoulder and played across the face of Klein, showing the flexibility and explosiveness that made him such a coveted recruit.
My favorite Alfred Collins play from UTEP. The good and the bad in one play. Explosive, flexible to dip his shoulder as he plays across the RG to beat him badly. Then stoned by a 6'2, 250-pound junior TE because Collins let his hands drop and wasn't ready to engage. pic.twitter.com/oRdHsbYAQ3— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) September 22, 2020
Then things went badly. Since Collins didn’t need to use his hands to beat Klein — his athletic traits allowed that — he let them drop as he encountered a brick wall by the name of Trent Thompson, a 6’2, 250-pound tight end now in his third year at UTEP. It’s a run-pass concept by the Miners designed to negate exactly what Collins accomplishes by instantly getting into the backfield. UTEP was able to complete the pass on the play.
Collins will improve his technique as he continues to work with Giles and associate head coach for defense/defensive line coach Mark Hagen. Giles in particular has a well-earned reputation for developing defensive linemen dating back to his years churning out NFL players under Mack Brown. The question with Giles has always been about his ability as a recruiter.
Even without highly-developed technique, Collins still continued to show up athletically, recording his first career sack when the left tackle couldn’t handle a difficult block with the left guard releasing. The play call looked to be a Kansas State-style quarterback draw run-pass option on third downs favored by UTEP head coach Dana Dimel when he coached in Manhattan for Bill Snyder.
The first sack for Alfred Collins at Texas came on what looks like a Kansas State-style QB draw RPO on third down. The UTEP LT, a one-time starter at Illinois, had no chance to block Collins off the ball without some help from the guard and Collins was able to finish the play. pic.twitter.com/akKOL2nFYP— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) September 22, 2020
Worth noting that the UTEP left tackle that Collins beat, redshirt senior Darta Lee, started immediately at Illinois as a true freshman in 2016. Lee would certainly be a better fit at guard, where he played for the Illini, and didn’t get any help from how this play was blocked, but he does have Power Five-quality talent.
Last week, redshirt sophomore nose tackle Keondre Coburn had some high praise for the newcomer, along with a nickname — Fresh Legs.
“He’s so quick off the ball and uses his hands so aggressive and so strong,” Coburn said. “He’s a monster.”
Call the work that Collins does with his hands a work in progress, but the film backs up what Coburn said about his quickness and strength. There just aren’t many 6’5, 300-pounders with the quickness, length, and hand size of Collins. Since that quickness translates to flexibility, Collins has an overall level of mobility that allows him to check the boxes as a player likely to fulfill his potential, especially when it comes to redirecting in the backfield to finish pressures with sacks.
“He comes in every day and he loves to practice — that’s one person I know that loves the practice. He smiles a lot,” Coburn said of Collins. “He’s goofy, but just to see him get that sack, he’d been doing it all fall camp and just seeing him doing in the game, it was just amazing. The fact that he did it first game was amazing to me.”