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Prospect of the week: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

Zaven Collins is a massive off-ball linebacker with an interesting path to the NFL

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Tulsa
Zaven Collins (23)
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Unique.

That is probably the best way to describe Tulsa off-ball linebacker Zaven Collins. In an era where linebackers are getting smaller and faster, with some inside ‘backers really being strong safeties in disguise, the sight of Collins staring at quarterbacks from a standup position between the guards is a bit jarring.

Collins is a 6-foot-4, 260-pound monster in the middle — 30-40 pounds heavier and a couple of inches taller than many of the guys now occupying off-ball linebacker spots in the NFL.

In its draft guide, Pro Football Focus says Collins “has throwback thumper size combined with modern athleticism.” PFF grades Collins as a first-round pick, and most multi-round mock drafts have him off the board by at least the middle of Round 2.

Is No. 11, where the New York Giants select in Round 1, too early to select Collins?

“I don’t think so, but I’m probably biased,” Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery told Big Blue View.

“I think he’s a game breaker type player. I think he’s a guy that you can build a team around, build a defense around, a guy that’s going to do things right on and off the field, loves the game of football and I think he’s a guy you can build around,” Montgomery said.

“I think he’s definitely a first-round guy. Is he No. 10, No. 11? At what part I don’t know. I think whoever gets him he’s going to make a difference on their football team right away.”

Pretty amazing for a kid who was a 6-3, 210-220-pound quarterback/free safety at a small Oklahoma high school and went to football camp after football camp after football camp before Tulsa became the only college to offer him a football scholarship.

“We weren’t really sure exactly what he was going to be, but knew he was something,” Montgomery said.

Collins helped Hominy High School win a state football title and Montgomery said he “did a tremendous job making the guys around him better.”

So, why didn’t he have college football recruiters knocking down his door? It was because, well, no one knew exactly what to do with him.

This was a kid who had spent time as a gymnast as a young boy, had been a multi-sport athlete in high school and wasn’t going to be able to be a quarterback or free safety at the college level. So, what would he be?

“With his frame you could see that he had great potential,” Montgomery said. “Now, the question was going to be what was that potential going to lead him to play?”

Tulsa brought him in as a “defensive athlete,” and then tried to figure out how to use him.

“If he didn’t make it on defense I for sure thought he could be a tight end just with the skill set that he was coming with,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery and defensive coordinator Joseph Gillespie settled on the idea of putting Collins at off-ball linebacker and getting him to add some weight to his frame.

“We just figured in the scheme that we run as our WILL linebacker his skill set allowed him to do so much. By being our WILL linebacker we felt like we could use him in our blitz packages, bring him off the edge, bring him up the middle, use him in drop situations. Like I said, a very intelligent player,” Montgomery said. “So, being able to do some disguise things with him and allow him to use his athleticism. We just felt like having him off the ball allowed him to run and move and really affect the game more,” Montgomery said.

What Tulsa hadn’t counted on was how easily Collins, who had never participated in a real offseason training program, would put on weight.

Montgomery admitted there was a time he wondered “when is it [the weight gain] going to stop?”

Montgomery said that Collins “was able to keep all his mobility, his speed, actually got faster” as he got bigger.

Interestingly, former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks has Collins listed as the No. 1 outside linebacker in the draft in his recent position rankings. Brooks calls Collins a “chameleon” who is “capable of aligning between the tackles as a box defender or on the edges as a blitzer/pass rusher.”

Montgomery sees Collins the same way.

“At the next level I think he can play multiple spots. I think he can still play the WILL linebacker depending on their scheme,” Montgomery said. “I think he can play their MIKE and be a Tampa 2 type drop linebacker if you needed him to be, but also have the size and the speed and the strength to play in the middle and do the things that he needs to do.”

With all of that as backdrop, Collins profiles as a position-versatile inside/outside linebacker with freakish measurables and the intelligence to have been valedictorian of his high school class. I don’t know if his draft grade will put him in range for the Giants, but he certainly sounds like a player defensive coordinator Patrick Graham would find creative uses for.

Here is what our own Nick Falato put together when I asked him for his brief scouting report on Collins:

“Exceptional size at 6-4, 260 pounds, and he possesses good athletic ability that is highlighted by his change of direction skills, lateral agility, and closing burst. He’s not going to run a 4.4, but he’s not a liability in terms of speed, either. Was used as a traditional linebacker, as a defensive lineman, and as an apex defender in the slot. Large tackle radius is an asset, but he’s prone to miss tackles; he has to break down, come to balance, and use his incredible physical gifts to secure the tackle down to the ground. Very effective as a blitzer - has some pass rushing moves and leverages his length well. Length closes throwing windows at the second level and he has a good feel in zone coverage. Receives a lot of Brian Urlacher comparisons due to his size. His best fit is in a blitz heavy defense that would routinely pit running backs in pass protection against him. Collins may find himself in the first round because of his incredible size and ability to move in space, despite only receiving one college scholarship coming out of high school.”

As Falato indicated, the Urlacher comparison is one that is often made by those trying to figure out what Collins will be at the NFL level. Urlacher was a 6-4, 258-pound middle linebacker who came out of New Mexico and became a Hall of Fame player known for his tremendous athleticism and range to cover parts of the field most linebackers could not.

“I think Zaven’s got the potential of being that type of player,” Montgomery said. “But obviously you’ve got to have a little luck, you’ve gotta stay healthy, you’ve gotta continue to keep developing and growing.”

Could the Giants be the team that tries to unlock that level of play from Collins?

Prospects of the week

Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
Nico Collins, WR, Michigan
Quincy Roche, Edge, Miami