In mid-August, as he does daily, Nico Collins called home after football practice. Only this conversation wasn’t a typical check-in for the sophomore wide receiver. It was one his dad, Don, had longed to hear.
“I asked him how he was doing,” Don said during a phone interview Thursday. “And he was like, ‘I’m ballin’. Those were his exact words: ‘I’m ballin’.’ ”
After just three catches for 27 yards in 2017, Collins had yearned to say those words, too. He knew he’d be limited his freshman season behind classmates Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black on the depth chart.
But Collins was having a fall camp that had Michigan players and coaches raving. And Don had never heard such confidence in his son.
“You never hear him brag about anything,” Don said. “When people asked about him in high school, I told them, ‘Nico is good, but Nico doesn’t know how good he can be.’ ”
So when Collins did brag last month, Don knew it was meaningful.
“I knew the lightbulb had finally gone off for him.”
Collins’ first sport was basketball, which he began playing when he was four. Eventually, he’d become one of the country’s top-ranked seventh and eighth graders on the AAU circuit.
One of his lifelong friends, Terell West, says he still “knows him as a basketball player.”
West and Collins first met playing pee-wee football together in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. Collins was a quarterback and running back then, sharing the field with two Division-I athletes in West — now a running back at Middle Tennessee State — and current Maryland quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome.
The trio moved on to star at Clay-Chalkville High School, where they were joined by now-West Virginia receiver T.J. Simmons.
It was through competing with Simmons that Collins first flashed serious potential on the field.
“That’s when we found out he was gonna be a player,” West said. “Throughout the summer, we saw him as a long receiver, and we saw him competing with T.J. Simmons. We just saw them working and coming together, and he was just learning from (him). T.J. was a big-time mentor to Nico.”
Simmons was loud. Collins wasn’t. Though their personalities were at odds, the two quickly developed a strong bond and mentorship.
“T.J. was the complete polar opposite,” said former-Clay-Chalkville offensive coordinator Stuart Floyd. “And some of those things helped Nico because T.J. played with an edge and a physicality that Nico didn’t really have at the time.”
Over the course of the year, Collins’ personality emerged. Before every game, he and Simmons would put on a “dance show of sorts” in Don’s words — just as Collins still does today.
“Man, it’s so fun when he’s opened up,” West said. “He’s so tall, just seeing him dance is fun. It just takes some time for it to come out. But he’s always been a character, just really funny.
“We kind of got him to open up towards the end of the year. Like I said, T.J. just being a mentor got him to break out of that shell.”
Collins broke out on the field, too. With him, Simmons, Pigrome and West all on the same side of the ball, Clay-Chalkville rode an unstoppable offense to a state championship title in 2014.
“It’s probably the most fun I’ll ever have in my career,” Floyd said. “I’m not sure you’ll come across that many talented players at the same school at the same time. You could do pretty much anything you wanted to offensively.”
Collins amassed 2,000 yards over his final two seasons, becoming the state’s top-ranked recruit at receiver.
But even as his game soared, his humble personality persisted. That would a leave a lasting impression on Jerry Hood, legendary Clay-Chalkville coach who has since retired.
Every day during practice, Collins would jog behind the offense and give Hood a bump or pat on the back. To others, it was a habit that went mostly unnoticed. But for Hood and Collins, it meant everything.
“He didn’t say much, but that was his way of saying, ‘I’m here coach. I’m enjoying this time,’ ” Hood said. “I never will forget that, and I appreciated that about him.”
Alabama isn’t a recruiting hotbed for Michigan, and it’s no surprise why. Plucking recruits from the Deep South and Nick Saban isn’t easy.
“I think for most kids in Alabama, if Auburn or Alabama offers you,” Floyd said, “it’s pretty much expected that you’re going to one of the two.”
The Crimson Tide wanted Collins, especially. Of course, that’s where Simmons had just enrolled in the fall of 2016, and pressure to follow suit crowded Collins.
“I vividly remember seeing his face in the early part of the season just being really worn down,” Hood said. “T.J. was at Alabama at the time, and everybody was talking about Alabama.”
So Hood met with Collins individually and gave his receiver permission to stop answering calls. Dozens of schools had offered Collins, and out of politeness, he had been answering everything that came his way.
But there was one school Collins really didn’t mind hearing from: Michigan. After all, Don — a Detroit native — was a “huge” Wolverines fan.
So Collins asked the Clay-Chalkville coaching staff to send Michigan his tape. The Wolverines had never heard of Collins, but just days after watching his tape, they flew staff down to Alabama.
“Nico actually recruited Michigan,” Floyd said. “It wasn’t Michigan going after him originally, truth be told.”
Collins first met Jim Harbaugh with a bag of Dairy Queen in his hands. It wasn’t long before the coach wanted some of his own.
“Harbaugh just stuck his hand right in Nico’s bag, grabbed some fries out and started eating them,” Hood said. “(It) was like they had known each other for forever, which was pretty awesome.
“He just had himself a good old Jim Harbaugh time.”
Collins must not have minded the sacrifice in fries. For all the odd anecdotes Harbaugh has created on the recruiting trail, he left a folksier impression in Birmingham. Collins would take multiple unofficial visits to Ann Arbor before committing in February of his senior year.
“(Harbaugh) was very, very down to Earth,” Floyd said. “He and I talked about emojis just because we wear similar glasses. … He’s pretty cool, man. He’s not like a lot of coaches, and Nico liked that.”
Three years later, Collins has indeed started to shine under Harbaugh.
Taking over a starting role for the injured Black, Collins has five catches for 113 yards and a touchdown in three games. He maintains the team’s highest yard-per-catch mark while blossoming into a reliable deep threat for Shea Patterson.
In the season-opener at Notre Dame, Collins caught a 52-yard bomb from the junior quarterback to open the second half. A week later, Collins caught his first career touchdown on another deep ball — this time a 44-yard connection against Western Michigan. It was the first score in 364 days for a Wolverines receiver.
“Everybody’s always seen potential in him,” Patterson said. “Even last year in film, I remember watching this tall, lanky guy — very athletic and fast.”
So what’s been the difference in Collins realizing this potential? Unprompted, Patterson gave part of the answer during a press conference Wednesday.
“(It was) believing in himself a little bit more,” Patterson said. “… Just him knowing that he’s kinda that guy.”
Collins knows his career is far from finished, but he talks about his NFL dreams with his family occasionally. He wants to continue becoming faster and stronger, hoping to model the skill sets of Randy Moss, Josh Gordon and DeAndre Hopkins.
With plays like those he made against Notre Dame and Western Michigan, that’s becoming more of a reality.
“God willing, he stays healthy, and if he does, there’s no telling where he could go,” Don said. “Heck, Hall of Fame.”
A lot separates Collins from a gold jacket. But Collins now believes that the sky’s the limit, and that’s what is truly important.
“I think he realizes that he can be really good,” Don said. “And I think after the conversation we had in fall camp, the light just came on for him.
“It was time to rock n’ roll.”