Maliek Collins is thought by many to be the greatest talent on Nebraska’s roster. That alone, however, doesn’t guarantee you get to wear a "C" on your jersey.
When it came time to vote on team captains early this summer, the junior defensive tackle didn’t assume he’d be among the chosen ones.
“I didn’t really understand what my teammates thought of me, because I really don’t talk a lot,” Collins said. “But it’s good to see that my teammates think highly of me, and they want me to lead them.”
Collins may not say as much as others, but he tends to make the most of his words.
For all the success he had last year — second-team All-Big Ten, according to the coaches — and all that is expected of him this year, he maintains humility.
He tells the story of two years ago as a true freshman, when he received his "welcome to college" greeting. It was Spencer Long, now in the NFL with Washington, who showed him this was no longer like Friday nights on chewed-up grass fields where talent is all you need.
It was a zone play to the right side. “I finished like 13 yards down the field,” Collins said.
He has some humor, too. He doesn’t know why fellow D-lineman Ross Dzuris, a walk-on from Plattsmouth, keeps styling his mustache with that gel and a mini comb. “I just look at him, man. He’s supposed to be a defensive lineman. You can’t be waxing that mustache.”
And he has an ultra level of competitiveness. It shines through even when having a conversation in a hallway a day before the first fall camp practice.
Collins will tell you senior guard Chongo Kondolo is his favorite offensive lineman to go against. “He teaches me lessons every time I don’t step to him correct. Every time I come out and my arms are wide or something like that, he gets right in my chest.”
With smile on face, he also says of Kondolo: “I’m going to have to get his ass this fall.”
Collins said he doesn’t feel pressure heading into this year.
He also doesn’t particularly mind that Nebraska seems to be off the national radar screen this preseason — not showing up in top 25s and predicted second in the Big Ten West by the media. Waiting in the weeds is fine with Collins.
“Definitely. You come here, you got no expectations (nationally),” he said. “They want us to just fly under the radar. We’ll come in here, we’re going to win them all, hopefully.”
Having Collins as part of the guts of that defense certainly makes life better for a new Husker staff.
In the summer, defensive coordinator Mark Banker said Collins is talented enough that he needs to just make sure he’s not trying to do too much. Play the call. Let that skill take over from there.
Banker said Collins’ flexibility and explosiveness stand out for a man his size, with the 6-foot-2 Collins weighing in this week at 305 pounds.
“But just don’t try to do too much,” the coach added. “Do what you need to do and then just do it better than everybody, because he has that capability. Because when we move him, because of his explosiveness, he can’t be blocked.”
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Even Ndamukong Suh, whose final two seasons at Nebraska were of legendary status, didn’t play as much or have the numbers Collins did his first two years.
With the Huskers needing immediate help on the defensive line during Collins’ true freshman season, he responded to the opportunity and won a starting job by the bowl game. Last year as a sophomore, he led the team in tackles for loss with 14, and was second on the team in sacks (4½) and quarterback hurries (13) while playing a scheme that probably didn’t allow him to be as attacking as he can be in 2015.
He's on the fast track and not surprised by it either.
“Not at all,” he said. “It’s just all about how much work you put in, and how dedicated you are to being the best you can possibly be.”
He gets asked about the NFL, but he has nothing to say publicly about that right now.
He sets personal goals, of course, but keeps those inside his head.
“That’s what you work for every day. You wake up every day as an individual and you go compete as a team. I’m working my craft this year, just so I can hold myself accountable to my team.”
Sounds like a captain.
He’s taken time in the summer working individually with incoming freshmen such as twins Carlos and Khalil Davis, and (not related) Alex Davis. He wanted them to have a head start before fall camp. They have talent, but nothing is guaranteed. Collins did not arrive to this point just because of talent.
“You got to put in a lot of extra time. So hopefully those guys will come in ready to work if they want to play right away.”
When it comes to the team as a whole, Collins wants to see this group not lose its way when it makes a mistake the way it sometimes did a year ago.
The game in Madison doesn’t have to be brought up. Everyone knows that’s the example of allowing a few snowballs to become an avalanche.
“Just keep our head,” Collins said, “and just keep plugging along.”
Putting in the work figures to be no issue for No. 7. He may not talk the most, but like Ameer Abdullah before him, teammates respect how he goes to work.
You may have forgotten, but it was Abdullah who said of Collins last April, when the defensive tackle had been on campus all of 10 months, “I’m telling you right now: He’s probably going to be an All-American before it’s all said and done."
Still work to do for all that. It'll take the same type of drive that made Collins a chosen captain of his teammates in just his third year in the program.
That feels as good as bursting through and throwing a Miami running back to the ground on third down.
“You walk past all those pictures of those captains,” Collins said. “Just to know that you’re a representative of this program like that, it means a lot to me.”