J.R. Collins admitted he was immature, he took things for granted, he’d show up late to meetings — the kind of things that don’t reflect well on a person, particularly one expected to be one of the leaders of Virginia Tech’s football team.
After showing an extended patience, head coach Frank Beamer finally gave the defensive end an ultimatum before last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl.
“You’re either going to do it my way or the highway,” Collins said. “He said, ‘If you’re late one more time to a meeting, then you’re not going to the bowl game.’ I was alarmed.”
Fast forward a few months and Collins, a senior from Stafford, is a changed man. He’s rededicated himself this offseason, embracing his faith and refocusing himself on and off the field. The result has been a different player, one that’s making plays and providing the kind of leadership expected from a senior who first burst on the scene as a sophomore.
“He’s a guy who’s really straightened out his life overall, being on time, not missing stuff, not sleepy,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “It’s hard to do things half butt off the field and then be really sharp on the field, so he’s tightened up his whole life from that standpoint.”
Last year provided all the motivation he needed to get on track. Collins got his first taste of success as a sophomore in 2011, making 57 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks to go with a team-high 29 quarterback hurries, numbers only a sliver behind James Gayle and good enough to earn him an honorable mention All-ACC nod.
“I guess I got a little complacent early on in my career,” Collins said. “Because I had some success and I thought I had arrived early on in my career. And I think coach [Bud] Foster, he’s always saying the minute you think you’re good, somebody’s going to knock you down. And I didn’t work as hard after I thought I had arrived.”
He hadn’t, and 2012 showed it. Collins started, but his production lagged. He finished with six tackles for a loss and only 1.5 sacks, losing his starting gig by the end of the year.
Collins was also out of shape, his weight shooting up to 270 pounds, part of the reason he was shifted inside at times to play tackle while other ends like Tyrel Wilson, Corey Marshall and Dadi Nicolas took his reps.
“Last season was pretty humbling to have some of the younger guys come up during the season and take my spot,” he said. “You can’t be complacent at this level.”
Beamer’s bowl threat hit home. Collins entered the offseason a new man. He got in shape, shedding 20 pounds to get back to 252 for the spring, something that’s made him quicker.
“Last year, I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to on the field,” he said. “When it comes down to it making plays, speed and quickness is the difference between a hurry and a sack or a tackle and a missed tackle.”
He’s made it a point to be on time for meetings and classes, little things that contributed to his slide last year.
“It’s like you flipped a switch,” Wiles said. “So far he’s sustained it throughout this semester. He’s really on top of his academics. He wants to graduate. He’s just been sharp, he really has.”
Collins credits a lot of it with renewing his Christian faith. He meets weekly with team chaplain Johnny Shelton after not doing so at all last season.
“He’s just teaching me how it’s bigger than football,” Collins said.
Through Athletes in Action, Collins plans to go to Los Angeles this summer to mentor kids from the inner cities, hoping to put his human development major to good use, an idea he got on a weekend retreat in North Carolina.
He’s thankful that he’s been given so many chances to turn things around.
“I could have left with no degree, left with no chance of going to the NFL, just by being kicked off the team,” Collins said. “It just would have looked ugly. … Luckily, [Beamer] had some favor on me, because he knew that I was a good guy and he was hoping that I would turn it around.”