Futures: Tulsa LB Zaven Collins
Few players are as easy to immediately identify on tape as Tulsa Golden Hurricane linebacker Zaven Collins. As soon as you turn on the tape, the 6-foot-5, 259-pound dude wearing No. 23 sticks out clear as day. Any random person off the street could identify the NFL player on that defense.
Collins was not always a mountain in the middle of the defense, though. As a high schooler, Collins played double duty as a quarterback and safety. Collins only converted to linebacker when he got to Tulsa, which makes it all the more fascinating that he is already so complete of a linebacker. Collins may be a relatively young, inexperienced linebacker, but he sure does not play like one.
A common issue with late linebacker converts such as Collins is that they often struggle to adjust to the confines of playing in the box. At linebacker, a player has to see and react to a ton of stimuli with limited vision and space to work with. It is not like playing safety, where a player gets to see things from depth and play from more advantageous angles. In turn, most desirable late-conversion linebacker prospects (or NFL players) have to be exceptionally fast for the position and rely on their speed to fix their other issues. That is far from the case with Collins.
Central Florida is running a zone concept into the boundary with jet motion across the field to the other side. This presents split flow for the defense, which is intended to get the linebackers to freeze and delay their fit to the play side. Collins (the top off-ball linebacker) does not take the bait and triggers as soon as the offensive linemen move laterally with their first step. Nobody climbs to Collins here, but even so, he triggers with such urgency that he is at the line of scrimmage before the running back even touches the ball. Climbing to Collins here may only prevent a tackle for loss, but it does not stop him from taking away the gap at the line of scrimmage. There was no beating Collins to the spot.
Now this is the kind of stuff you find throughout Collins' film a lot. In Tulsa's three-down front, they will often ask their play-side linebacker to fit inside of the pull and "spill" the play outside while the back-side linebacker flows over the top to replace him. Collins (again, the top linebacker) plays forward through his first step, but sees the tackle pulling and immediately redirects himself to get horizontal. And that's where Collins often looks his best. Though not the most flashy or explosive athlete, Collins has a way of covering immense chunks of grass when moving laterally across the line of scrimmage like this.
It should not look this easy for someone as big as Collins to step back, swipe a lineman's hands away, work over the top of the play, and fire back down to make a tackle. For anyone who has read my work here or followed me on Twitter, you may know I am a sucker for linebackers who prove they can play against gap schemes, and Collins certainly checks that box.
Where Collins really breaks the mold compared to other late conversions to the position is how well he can take on blocks. Collins may not be the most violent player downhill (which could be a byproduct of Tulsa's defense more than anything) but that is not to say that he cannot handle blocks. Collins absorbs contact exceptionally well and plays with teach-tape-quality technique and leverage. He "gets" the position in a way so few young linebackers do.
Collins (top) is playing off of the defensive lineman in front of him. If the lineman takes himself to the B-gap (outside the guard), Collins falls back into the A-gap, or vice versa. The lineman gets bullied and leaves Collins to sit back in the A-gap with the center making a pretty clean climb up to him. Collins takes on the block to perfection. Collins shoots both hands into the center's chest and shots his hands above his eyes. This gives Collins control of the block, allowing him to push the center inside while Collins moves his head and outside shoulder to "show color" in the A-gap. This forces the running back to cut the play back inside, where the rest of the Tulsa defense is able to prevent anything more than an average gain. Every coach in the country should be using this rep as a teaching tape.
Collins is not just some massive mountain of a man who can only thump versus the run, either. He does not have the raw explosion or zip of the Lavonte David or Luke Kuechly types, but there is plenty of sideline-to-sideline speed to his game to suggest he will not be exploited when teams want to force runs to the perimeter. Collins ran a 4.66s 40-yard dash at his pro day, which is acceptable for a linebacker in a vacuum and outrageous for a linebacker his size.
Collins starts to the top of the screen in the first play, bottom of the screen in the second play. In both clips, Collins (23) works from one side of the play to the other while beating the angle from a lineman trying to climb up to him at the second level. With some help from the overhang delivering a great fit in the first clip, Collins is even able to get over in time to help bring down the ballcarrier for a tackle for loss.
If there is any athletic concern with Collins, it is that he can look stiff at times. That is just the harsh reality for a 6-foot-5 linebacker. Collins is good in many other ways and his positives should outweigh the instances in which he looks rigid, but there is a reason few linebackers are this tall. It is simply harder to play the position with good leverage and short, calculated steps in a condensed space with a 6-foot-5 frame than it is for a player who is, say, 6-foot-2.
Collins starts this play to the top of the screen just outside the hash. Like in some of the other clips, Collins does well to track the back and flow over the top to fit where he needs to. However, this time, Collins comes in a bit too hot as he flies over the top and runs himself out of the fit. Collins does not have the flexibility to easily settle himself down if he comes in too hot, which is why the running back is able to turn this one back up the field inside of Collins for a decent gain. Plays like this do not make up a concerning portion of Collins' film, but when he does lose a rep, it tends to look something like this. Collins is also not the only player at fault, to be clear, but the play still serves to show Collins is not the most flexible player around.
As much of his work in the run game showcases, Collins is a good processor. It is not hard to see how he was able to play quarterback and safety before making the switch to linebacker. Thankfully, Collins' processing and position savvy shows up in coverage as well, which is perhaps the benefit of playing his old positions.
At the snap, Collins is just outside the hash to the bottom of the screen. This particular clip does not require Collins to read through a full concept in zone, but it does ask him to carry a running back vertically on a corner route, which is not always easy. Collins does a great job to track the back out of the backfield and play with good leverage over the top of him while maintaining the right hips/shoulders angle to drive on any break outside. As the running back slows up for his break to the corner, Collins again does well to match the running back and maintain good leverage on top of him before squeezing the route, ultimately forcing the quarterback to scramble and take a sack.
This play asks a bit more of Collins (who is lined up on the 25-yard line across from the right guard at the snap). After the snap, Collins shuffles up to read the potential hand-off, but quickly realizes the offensive line has hopped into a pass set and changes gears. Collins' job is to then turn back to the other side of the field and look for the drag or dig coming to him. Collins' spacing here is wonderful as he climbs to the top of the first receiver crossing his face to force the route under him and deny the quarterback that throwing window. As the later shallow route comes through, Collins makes a smooth transition through the window of the first crosser to come down and attack the shallow. Nobody is calling Collins a Fred Warner clone, but showing this kind of discipline, spacing, and athleticism while reacting to that much stimuli crossing one's face sets a pretty enticing baseline for Collins' coverage ability.
The only question with Collins is how well he can turn and run down the seam, which he was just not asked to do at Tulsa. That is not necessarily a fault of Collins so much as it may be Tulsa's defense handling the seams through other avenues. Given Collins' adequate speed and sharp coverage chops, there is good reason to believe Collins can do it, but there is little to no evidence right now to confirm it. Not many NFL linebackers can carry the seam at a high level to begin with, so this question is less of a knock against Collins so much as trying to gauge exactly what his ceiling may be.
Fortunately, Collins also has other tools to be valuable on passing downs. Collins was regularly asked to blitz and rush off the edge at Tulsa. His frame, strength, and explosion made him a menacing pass-rusher, at least as far as off-ball linebackers go. Comparing Collins to Dont'a Hightower is a bridge too far, but Collins does offer some of the same size, blitz potential, and flexibility to fill in as an edge defender in sub packages.
Collins is a complete football player. He processes the run game at a high level, manages blockers well, and has enough sideline-to-sideline speed to hang. Perhaps Collins could be a bit more violent downhill, but that would serve as more of a cherry-on-top than anything. On pass downs, Collins has an understanding of leverage and vision in zone coverages that few college players do, while also being a valuable rusher. Collins does not have the most explosive highlights in the same way Penn State's Micah Parsons does, but it is so easy to see how Collins can wear many hats as soon as he enters the league and provide a high baseline of play.
If anything else could be a concern with Collins, it is that his eventual NFL defense will look nothing like Tulsa's three-down front. It will be a different world for him, and that makes projecting his film slightly tougher because it is not a clear 1:1 with NFL play. There is some degree of risk in projecting how he handles the transition.
To that point, perhaps a top-15 pick at linebacker should be a bit flashier, more athletic, and come from a system with a clearer picture to project with. Their tape should look a bit more like the Devin White and Reuben Foster types. Collins slots comfortably into that next tier, though, and would be a nice addition to any number of teams in the back half of the first round.