You have to be cautious with comparisons. Bo Pelini knows it. This is why he proceeds with care as he talks about the potential of Maliek Collins.
“He’s not this guy,” Pelini says, but …
But, yes, Collins does have attributes that remind him of this guy Pelini once coached at LSU, this guy named Glenn Dorsey.
You know Dorsey. The man who won about every important college football defensive award you could win in 2007: the Lombardi Trophy, the Outland and Nagurski awards. The man who was the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft the following spring.
That’s why Pelini is sure to preface his comments with “he’s not this guy.”
Still, the Husker coach can’t help but think of Dorsey when discussing the possible ceiling for NU's sophomore defensive tackle.
“He’s got that kind of ability, a guy who’s got that strength, but also has great feet, great movement,” Pelini said. “That’s high praise, but he reminds me in some ways, a lot of ways, of what Dorsey did. I think he’s got that kind of upside if he continues on his progress.”
Collins takes it in stride. He's not a man of many words when microphones are around.
“That’s a major accomplishment,” he says politely of the Dorsey mention. “He was a great player in college.”
But with just one start under his belt at this level, Collins knows he's definitely not that guy yet.
Yet you can see why Pelini sees some similarities in the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Collins. He is about the same weight as Dorsey, maybe an inch taller. And Collins has the speed and agility that has led to him even taking snaps at defensive end this spring.
At practice Monday, Collins lined up at end and looked nothing like a 300-pounder. He started outside before breezing inside the tackle untouched to the quarterback.
Part of Collins taking some snaps outsite is to provide another body at the position this spring.
“But he is a guy because of his athleticism who could go outside and help us some,” Pelini said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to do that for a second. … You kind of look at his body type, but his movement and explosion for a guy his size is pretty unique.”
Put him inside, put him outside. Makes no difference to Collins. “I’ll do whatever they want me to do, whatever my job entitles.”
The Kansas City, Mo., native said he feels like a different player from last year. He received important snaps in 2013, but was taking the field just a few months removed from his senior prom.
It wasn’t always easy to keep his head above water.
“I gained a lot of confidence since then,” he said. “When I first came in, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I kind of adapted quick.”
He finished the season with 12 tackles, two for loss, and one sack. While those numbers won’t knock anyone over, he was playing a position few players figure out a year, or even two years, out of high school.
Even with Ndamukong Suh, it took until the end of his junior year, his fourth year in the program, for him to become a dominating force.
But Collins seemed to be catching on to life in big-time college football by the end of the year. Eight of his tackles came in the last four games. And it was Collins who earned his first career start in the bowl game, lining up inside next to veteran Thad Randle.
He picked up from there this spring, working on the No. 1 line next to Vincent Valentine, with Randy Gregory and Greg McMullen at the ends.
It’s a group with plenty to prove, but also one that looks imposing when standing in a line on the practice field in March. Becoming a dominating front four, Collins says, is a popular topic among them all.
“We talk about that every day. Every day in meeting rooms, every day in practice, we constantly talk about it, how we just have to keep competing every day to get better.”
It’s not just about being a dominating front four, according to Collins. It’s about making the entire Blackshirts a feared monster again.
“It’s a huge deal, because we have to get that swagger back,” he said.
You have to have a little swagger to wear a single digit as a defensive lineman, right?
Why’d he pick No. 7 anyway?
“I actually wanted 6 but Coop (Corey Cooper) got that number, so I just rolled with 7,” Collins said. “I wanted to be different.”
He likes his number. He also seems to like his position coach, Rick Kaczenski.
Pelini brings up Dorsey. Coach Kaz, as players know him, often brings up names from his days coaching at Iowa, such as Adrian Clayborn, Mitch King and Matt Kroul.
Collins said Kaczenski will sometimes show old Iowa clips three different times during a single meeting.
Collins notices something from those repeat highlights: Those old Hawkeye D-linemen played with an edge.
“You know his background and who he’s coached,” Collins said. “Every day, we strive to be like those Iowa guys he had, that group he had at Iowa, the meanest guys in the Big Ten at the time. We just want to be that group.”
Let it be known: Mean guys can wear single-digit numbers.