By David Knox, Sports Editor
CLAY — Clay-Chalkville offensive coordinator Stuart Floyd once said Nico Collins’ hands were so soft that you couldn’t even hear the football smack against them when he caught it.
Nothing else about the Cougars’ star wide receiver falls into the “soft” category.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Collins is “a tough, thick kid,” said head coach Jerry Hood. “He’s a lot bigger once you stand by him in person. He’s a built-up, tough kid. His legs are big, he’s got big ol’ hips and big ol’ thighs. He’s just a big ol’ good-looking kid.”
Collins has been a starter since midway through his sophomore year, and he’d picked up offers from Alabama and Auburn before he’d turned 16. It certainly helped that he had highly sought after teammates in T.J. Simmons, now at Alabama, and Ty Pigrome, now at Maryland. But once they saw the big kid gliding across the field snagging passes, he was on the radar. With his size, he is deceptively fast, probably clocking about a 4.5 40.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever coached, there’s no question about it,” Hood said of the five-star recruit labeled the best prospect in Alabama. “His hands are extremely soft. And his catch radius with his arms is a little longer than most kids. He’s 6-5, but he’s 6-5 with really long arms. Combine that with having really soft hands and having the ability to dish out punishment when he needs to, or take the blows when he needs to, makes him a little different. There are some 6-5 kids that are really skinny and the idea is to body blow them so you can knock them out in the 10th round. Nico’s not that way.”
With Simmons, Pigrome and a dozen or so other starters gone, the focus is clearly on Collins. As a junior, he hauled in 60 passes for 1,103 yards and 16 scores. With sophomore quarterback Willie Miller replacing Pigrome, it was difficult to forecast numbers for the big target this season. Collins claims that there are other receivers and defenses can’t always double-team him. “I am excited about being ‘the guy,’ but what other teams don’t know when they’re so focused on me, we got two other receivers on the other side of the field.”
The opening win over Florence bore that out to some degree. Rod McCloud hauled in four passes for 61 yards and a 40-yard TD pass from Miller. Courtney Braxton nabbed a 6-yard TD pass.
Still, defenses have to prove they can stop Collins. Friday night against the Falcons, he pulled in four receptions for 152 yards and a score, coming on an 83-yard strike from Miller.
Hood said that even if Collins is doubled, the Cougars might go to him at times regardless.
“His size creates an issue when he goes toward the middle because they can’t get around him. We saw that over and over this summer,” Hood said. “I think he’s a lot tougher football player than he was as a sophomore or even as a junior.”
Collins’ goal last year was to be a better blocker, and he accomplished that. “This year, I’m just trying to get better as an athlete,” he said. “Trying to run routes better. Staying low, because most defensive backs are shorter than me.”
Hood is emphasizing something else as well. “I think the thing that I want to see from him is the ability to catch the ball and break a tackle. A lot of times that’s hard for long kids because everybody is always hanging on their feet. But if he can get the mindset of catching the ball and exploding out of that, I think that would take his game to the next level.
“He’s so good on the sides. Where he can tap-tap. And we can throw him the post and jump balls in the end zone. He’s so good at it. I think the way we’re going to end up using him a lot is be a lot of times he’ll be somewhere around the middle and we need him to break a tackle from time to time. The explosiveness after the catch is where I’d like to see improvement.”
He’s been on the move all summer, whether it was “The Opening” or the barbecue at Michigan or 7on7s. He’s used to traveling, though. As an even-younger athlete, he was a highly rated basketball player on the AAU circuit.
And the recruiting battle continues for his services, although he said he is mostly just enjoying the process. He won’t announce his choice till signing day. His top three remain Michigan, Alabama and Georgia.