Nico Collins and the challenge of reaching a tantalizing ceiling

Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 5:13pm

Junior wide receiver Nico Collins had a 51-yard catch against Maryland but no receptions the rest of the game.

Junior wide receiver Nico Collins had a 51-yard catch against Maryland but no receptions the rest of the game. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

Three years after Nico Collins graduated Clay-Chalkville High School in the suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., Jerry Hood’s pride still bubbles up every time he watches Michigan play.

For four years, Collins terrorized defenses with the athleticism and imposing frame that made him one of the most talented players Hood has coached. Watching from the stands all those years, Hood’s kids idolized Collins and watched in awe as he accounted for 2,773 yards and 40 touchdowns in his career with Clay-Chalkville.

So now, when they watch Michigan together, their pride is a family affair.

“My kids still look at the TV, ‘Where’s Nico?’ Hood said. “… It’s really fun to watch.”

Thousands of miles away in Ann Arbor,  Michigan fans find themselves asking the same question every week. For them, it’s a matter of frustration, sparked by the contrast of Collins’ generational talent paired against his inconsistent usage.

It’s a frustration that rears its head when Collins inevitably breaks downfield, positions himself perfectly and pinpoints a deep ball against an overmatched defensive back, before going untargeted for drives at a time as the Wolverines’ offense sputters.

“He adds a dynamic element to our offense to where you have to pay attention to him every snap,” senior quarterback Shea Patterson said after last week’s win over Maryland. “And most of the time when he’s one-on-one, he’s going to go up and get it.”

That afternoon summed up Collins’ season, as he brought down a key 51-yard reception late in the second quarter — and then finished with no catches the rest of the way.

Against Maryland, Collins knew when his opportunity was coming. All week, Michigan had gameplanned to exploit the Terrapins’ Cover-6 defense, with Collins having half the field to work against freshman safety Treron Williams.

“That was just the coverage we’ve been game-planning for all week, and we just hit it over the top,” Patterson said.

The play, of course, worked, going for 51 yards off play-action and setting up a rushing touchdown two plays later. It also epitomized how Michigan likes to use Collins as a deep threat — sparingly and against looks that the Wolverines know he can exploit.

Of Collins’ three 40-plus yard receptions this year, two came in the first five minutes of games, when a team’s offensive plays are often scripted. All three times, the deep shots were isolated plays in games where he was mostly used underneath, providing a departure from his high school days when Collins’ size meant he could be targeted at will.

“We felt like, if they were not double-covering him, that we were available to take a shot at any time,” Hood said. “… He’s just a mismatch, man.”

Developing beyond his trademark size has been Collins’ primary focus throughout his three years at Michigan. He arrived in 2017 as an enticing but raw prospect, with the athleticism that made him the rare four-star wide receiver recruit who hadn’t posted a single 1,000-yard season in high school.

In a largely anonymous freshman season, he finished with just three catches for 27 yards, but set the path for a breakout sophomore year by developing into an all-around receiver. Now working with offensive coordinator Josh Gattis — a renowned wide receivers coach at previous stops — Collins has continued that process with a focus on his route-running, foot placement and pad level.

“I learn a lot from coach Gattis,” Collins said. “He really harps on details, technique, pad level. So he really knows what he’s talking about, we just gotta trust it.”

The results, though, have remained well short of Collins’ high ceiling, with his 439 yards and three touchdowns through nine games putting him on a near-identical pace to last season. And with flashes that he could be so much more, that’s an unsatisfying reality.

“What surprises me a little bit is that they sometimes don’t run curls or different short routes for him that would set that kind of (deep shot) up,” Hood said. “(Michigan has) so many great receivers that it’s hard for a team to double-cover him.”

Hood is careful to note that he’s not criticizing the Wolverines’ coaching staff. Even watching from afar, the strides in Collins’ game are obvious — “Goodness gracious, those guys do an awesome job coaching,” he said. But his point meshes with the general consensus: use Collins more and the results will follow.

Ask Collins himself and his agreement is implicit.

“A lot of people say I’m a deep threat, (and) it’s kinda true, but I can run a lot of routes,” Collins said. “Slants, curls, whatever. Any route on the route tree, I can do it all.”

Still, Collins’ ability as a deep threat remains his calling card. It’s what makes him a likely Day Two NFL Draft pick in the future and the focus of opposing defenses in the present. And as he stood on an empty field at Maryland Stadium on Saturday, it’s what brought a smile to his often-stoic face.

“I feel my go-to is the deep ball,” Collins said. “I love deep balls, man. I like getting my team, the offense, an opportunity to score the ball.”

The challenge for Michigan is optimizing that ability. And as Collins enters what could be the last three games of his college career without a 100-yard game and 144th in the country in receiving yards, that’s the issue the Wolverines have to solve.