Carlson: How Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins went from small-school Oklahoma football to big-time NFL Draft hopeful
To understand how Zaven Collins has gone from a little-recruited, small-school football player into one of the biggest breakout stars of this college football season, rewind to the first Saturday of December 2015.
Collins was a junior at Hominy High School back then, and he had led his team to the Class A state semifinals.
The opponent that winter evening: undefeated Stratford.
Hominy, with Collins at quarterback and safety, was beating teams by three and four scores or more that season. Winning 54-7 was a regular occurrence. Winning 34-15 was a tight fit.
But that night in the semis, Collins threw four interceptions, and Hominy didn’t manage a single touchdown.
Shutout in the semis.
Scott Harmon, then the coach at Hominy, remembers everyone in the football-crazy town half an hour northwest of Tulsa being down on Collins and him and anyone else who had anything to do with the football team.
“The way he handled it,” Harmon said of Collins, “I knew right then … this kid’s got it, man. I mean, he owned it, and nobody had to ask him to do it.
“And from that point on, you could tell ... he wanted the heat so he could redeem himself.”
Zaven Collins hasn’t stopped proving people wrong.
On the day he and his current team, Tulsa, face Tulane and continue their push for a conference crown and perhaps even a New Year’s Six Bowl, there is little question about the fuel behind Tulsa fire. Collins may well be the best college football player in our state, a hybrid linebacker and rush end who is earning awards and turning heads.
Some say he may be a first-round pick in next spring’s NFL Draft.
“He makes a lot of plays. He can run. He’s physical,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, whose team got an up-close-and-personal look at Collins in the season opener. “I watched a little bit of their game, maybe a quarter and a half of their game, the other night, and he showed up and made two or three really big plays at crucial times in that game.”
Gundy was referring to Tulsa’s victory last Saturday against SMU — Collins had a sack, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and the victory-sealing interception late in the game — but really, the Cowboy coach could’ve been talking about any Tulsa game this season.
Collins has had big plays at crucial times every time he’s stepped on the field.
All of college football has become aware of his prowess for game-changing plays. He's being talked about for major end-of-season awards, and Tuesday, he was named the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week, the first Tulsa player to land the award since it began in 2001.
Even as opponents scheme to slow him, Collins continues to impress.
“The crazy thing with Zaven,” Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery said, “I think Zaven’s best days are still ahead of him. He’s still learning the position, you know. You got to remember that he’s only played the position now a couple of years.”
Collins grew up wanting to play quarterback, and after his freshman year at Hominy, Harmon decided to switch him from running back to quarterback. The coach didn’t know if the switch was in the player’s best long-term interest.
“You’re gonna be the biggest quarterback I’ve ever seen,” Harmon then told Collins, who was 6-foot-4, 220 pounds in high school. “If you can make it as a quarterback, make it. But whatever, you’re gonna have the size and the skill enough to do something at the next level.”
Harmon, who played safety at OSU in the early 90s, thought enough of Collins that he sent more than a hundred letters to college recruiters. Harmon told them how great a player Collins was. How versatile he was. How talented.
“And we really didn’t hear a lot back,” said Harmon, now the coach at Ponca City.
Collins went to a bunch of camps the summer before his senior year, trying to catch someone’s eye, hoping to turn even one head.
Finally, Tulsa noticed.
Collins committed to the Golden Hurricane, then told Harmon that he was done with recruiting.
“If anybody else calls,” Collins told his coach, “don’t answer.”
Heading into his senior season at Hominy, Collins added the sting of college recruiters largely ignoring him to the motivation he felt from that semifinal loss a year earlier.
It spurred a monster season.
He accounted for 50 touchdowns, 27 rushing and 23 passing, and more than 3,100 yards of offense. He recorded 91 tackles, three interceptions and one fumble recovery on defense. He landed All-State honors.
But best of all, Collins led Hominy to an undefeated state championship.
Before every playoff game, Collins and Co. watched video clips from that loss to Stratford the year before. They called it a highlight tape, but it was really filled with low lights. Mistakes. Busts. Turnovers.
It stoked Hominy’s motivation.
“We were pretty hungry,” Collins said at the time.
That’s still the case with him.
“He’s still just as hungry as he was Day 1,” Montgomery said, “and can still see things that, ‘Hey, this is going to help me get better. A good step here, a bad step there, if I’m in position, I’m going to have the opportunity to make a ton of plays.’”
Collins has done just that.
The fourth-year junior, who has added 40 pounds since his high school days but hasn’t lost any speed, has a season’s worth of game-changing plays already — and 25th-ranked Tulsa has only played five games. Collins benefits from good talent all across the Tulsa defense, which keeps opponents from always keying on him and allows him a little more freedom, but the thing that separates him is his motivation.
He wants the heat.
“He has the intangibles in spades,” Harmon said. “He’s got great work ethic, he’s extremely motivated, and he’s really talented.
“Just a special kid.”
What the folks back in Hominy saw several years ago has now become obvious to everyone in football.
The fire doesn't just fuel Zaven Collins — it refines him.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
TULANE AT TULSA
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Chapman Stadium in Tulsa
TV: ESPN (Cox 29)