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J.R. Collins posted the highest grade for a Virginia Tech defensive player in Bud Foster's 19 seasons Saturday.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Virginia Tech defensive end J.R. Collins (center) rushes Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato (left) during the Hokies 29-21 three-overtime victory.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
BLACKSBURG — In his 19 years as Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator, Bud Foster has graded out 2,706 starting defenders, rewarding players with points for positive and exceptional plays and deducting them for things like mental errors and blown assignments.
A good score is in the high 40 s or 50 s. The two highest totals Foster has seen were Corey Moore’s 71 against Clemson in 1999 and Cornell Brown’s 70 in 1995 against West Virginia.
That is, until defensive end J.R. Collins took the field last Saturday against Marshall.
Collins was a terror in the Hokies’ 29-21 triple-overtime win against the Thundering Herd, finishing with this laundry list of stats: seven tackles, seven quarterback harasses, two sacks, one big hit, two exceptional plays, one caused fumble, one factor play and five extra miles.
All told, he had 73 points, a new record.
“It’s an honor,” Collins said. “Because Cornell and Corey Moore, they’re All-Americans. They have their numbers up in the stadium.”
“He’s ballin’ right now,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “That one tackle they had couldn’t block him.”
Considering the downward spiral he was on this time last year, it’s even more remarkable. After a promising sophomore campaign in which he had 57 tackles, 9 ½ tackles for a loss and 6½ sacks, Collins slacked off last year, gaining weight and losing effectiveness, to the point that coaches wondered if he’d ever turn things around.
He wasn’t a menace. He was just out of touch and unmotivated, showing up late to meetings or missing them altogether because he overslept. When he was there, he’d be on the verge of falling asleep, to the point where Wiles would have to tell him to stand up just to keep him awake.
Collins, who’d finish the year with 31 tackles, six tackles for a loss and only 1 ½ sacks, lost reps, watching as Dadi Nicolas, Tyrel Wilson and Corey Marshall stole his snaps.
Foster, Wiles and head coach Frank Beamer met with him personally to try to break him out of his funk. Beamer nearly left him at home for the Russell Athletic Bowl, telling him to shape up or possibly be asked to leave the program.
Then, Collins had an awakening — both religious and personal.
The Stafford native never was very spiritual growing up, but he renewed his faith, meeting regularly with former team chaplain Johnny Shelton, who’s now with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I felt like I just needed a change and needed an answer, and that’s when I started to apply myself, apply my faith,” Collins said. “Before, I didn’t really apply it much, had one foot in and one foot out. But when I started to apply it, I started to see changes. … When you’re all-in, you’re all-in. You start to see success.”
“I think he just decided he wanted to get it right,” Wiles said. “Kind of tired of being that guy.”
Collins lost weight, slimming down from the 270 pounds he had ballooned up to last fall to the lean 248 he’s at now. He went to church regularly, first at Blacksburg Baptist with tight ends coach Bryan Stinespring, and now at the New River Valley Community Church.
He became active in the Athletes in Action, going to Los Angeles this summer for three weeks to work with inner-city youth, volunteering at different rec centers. Last spring, he graduated with a degree in human development and is now working toward a second degree in sociology.
He continues to meet with new chaplain Dave Gittings, participating in team Bible-study groups and learning weekly principles.
Collins thinks that focus off the field has helped him focus on the field, where he’s taken advantage of every rep in practice and become the most productive player on the defense.
His 4 ½ sacks lead the team and are tied for sixth most nationally. He’s got 22 tackles and team highs in tackles for a loss (5) and quarterback hurries (13), joining James Gayle and Nicolas in the Hokies’ stable of play-making pass rushers.
“We needed it, really,” linebacker Jack Tyler said. “He’s just a totally changed person. … I wouldn’t say he was a bad person before, but you can just see that he’s more involved in the community. He’s just a better person.
“And I think that really related to the football field, just because you can trust him more, you can rely on him more, you know he’s going to do his assignment. Just a night and day difference.”
After Collins dominated against Marshall, he was asked to speak at the podium during post-game interviews. Beamer, having just finished his portion, passed by the defensive end while getting off the dais, greeting him as, “Mr. J.R. Collins.”
“Coming from the depths of where he came from, he has flipped it 180,” Wiles said. “It’s been a good story. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
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