Nico Collins leaned back against the ledge at Schembechler Hall and smiled. His semi-sarcastic laugh didn’t nullify the validity of his answer, though.
“I’m always open,” he joked, before the next question came flying in.
It’s a phrase many players say, with varying degrees of seriousness. But it’s easy to get the sense that the 6-foot-4 Collins believes it.
“I feel like as a receiving corps, we’re always open,” Collins reiterated. “I believe in our guys, and Shea believes in us. And I believe he can give us opportunities to go make a play.”
Collins’ answer, though basic, stripped down the essence of a potentially potent passing attack to its bare bones. It underscored the optimism that was so pervasive around this unit before the season, and even offered a hint of what Collins and others believe could still be coming.
Collins himself posted 632 yards and six touchdowns in 2018, seemingly a sign of an impending breakout year before a legitimate NFL decision would arrive. Then Michigan hired offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who brought a history of producing current and future NFL talent, like Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, Jerry Jeudy and Jordan Matthews, among others.
He brought a concept of “speed in space”, which was quite an appealing vision. Put your best players in the best position to make plays.
By any measure, Collins is one of Michigan’s best players. And by those same objective measures, his 10 catches though four games tell the tale of scant usage in what was supposed to be a defining year.
In the Wolverines 35-14 loss at Wisconsin, Collins was among those who outwardly displayed signs of frustrated On one particular route in the fourth quarter, Collins’ cornerback fell down mere yards past the line of scrimmage. Collins, hand raised, watched with the entire crowd as Patterson’s pass sailed well over the intended receiver, draped in double-coverage.
“We were losing — there’s always going to be frustration when you lose,” Collins said. “Not really, it was just open, it’s alright, it is what it is, next play. I’m not going to hold a grudge. There were times I was open, but I know Shea is going to find me next time.”
Late in that game, Collins started to become more involved. On one drive in the fourth quarter, he caught three targets for 79 yards, though one of the catches was nullified for pass interference. Still, the downfield sequence left fans wondering where that was two hours prior.
That loss led to a week of introspection, both with the receiving corps and with the offense writ large. Collins said the group honed its emphasis on attention to detail, which translated to a clean 52-0 win against Rutgers. The win included a 48-yard touchdown for Collins, who caught a seven-yard out route, turned upfield and sprinted down the sideline for the score. It looked easy. Speed met space. Almost as though finding your best players is both simple and smart.
Still, Gattis has been adamant that this offense, at its best, does not force-feed anybody. When it’s humming, everyone and everything will be an option, he emphasized.
“We talk about being balanced; balance for us is not run or pass,” Gattis said. “Balance is how many guys touch the ball. We want to be balanced from that standpoint; that the ball is being distributed to all of our playmakers and all of our skill guys.”
But when a player of Collins’ caliber only has 10 catches, there is a reasonable question as to whether everything has been over-thought. Collins and juniors Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black are among the three best weapons — if not the three best — this team has.
To not use them repeatedly, particularly amid offensive troubles, would be to self-restrict this group’s ceiling.
Asked where this offense can still go, Collins started down a laundry list.
“Trusting the play-calling,” he said. “Receivers working on our details. Watching film from Wisconsin, what can we do better? We can always improve as a receiving corps, and Shea can always improve as a quarterback. We can always improve.”
What wasn’t said, though seemingly implied: He’s always open.