Living in a small town and playing Class A football, University of Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins worked hard to get noticed by college recruiters.
“(Before) my senior year, I ended up going all over the nation to 12 different camps that summer, just searching for an offer,” Collins said. “Finally, my last camp was here at Tulsa in the heat of July, and I ended up getting an offer to play outside linebacker.”
At Hominy High School, Collins was a four-year starter on offense and defense. While leading the Bucks to the state title as a senior, he accounted for 3,100 yards and 50 touchdowns at quarterback and 91 tackles and three interceptions at safety.
But rampant success in an Osage County town of about 3,500 almost didn’t translate to an FBS offer. Collins’ other options were to play at NCAA Division II Central Oklahoma or take the junior-college route.
“It was very stressful,” he said. “It wasn’t envy or anything, but I was comparing myself to some people I had watched in person (who had offers). I’m not saying they weren’t good players or that I was better, but my level of play was at least equivalent to what they were playing.”
Collins accepted his status as under the radar in Hominy, which has produced more than its share of standout football players, and he didn’t let it get in the way of his goals.
“Once I quit using that as an excuse and looked past that, that’s when I started to really break out and I embraced it, like I’m from here and nothing is going to change that,” he said. “You can’t sit there and make excuses for yourself about what you want to do.”
When Collins excelled at the TU camp in July 2016, the coaches knew they had unearthed a hidden gem. The next month, Collins attended the Hurricane’s first preseason practice and committed 10 days later.
“We recruited him as a big athlete,” coach Philip Montgomery said. “Sometimes you know what you’re looking at and you know it’s going to be good.”
With a 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame, Collins brings great size to the outside linebacker spot, and the Hurricane coaches were tempted to play him as a freshman last season. Instead, they were willing to allow him to develop, and Collins also spent the year helping the scout team as a tight end.
“Playing against the defense, you kind of realize the physicality of the game,” he said. “I grew a lot last year, not just as a linebacker but as an overall football player.”
Because of injuries, Collins emerged as a starter in September and has been exceptional in the past eight games. He ranks second on the team with 76 tackles and leads TU with 8.5 tackles for lost yardage, in addition to a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception.
“He’s been a dominant player for us of late,” Montgomery said. “He continues to get better and better every week. He’s a guy that I think the ceiling’s the limit on. He hasn’t reached his potential yet, but I can promise you he’s working extremely hard at it.”
Last week against Memphis, Collins was TU’s most valuable player, recording 12 solo tackles in a performance that makes the coaching staff excited about the redshirt freshman’s future.
“I don’t think there’s any question that he can be a next-level-type player and have a long career,” Montgomery said. “He’s got to stay healthy. He’s got to continue to keep growing and getting better, but with that type of size and range and speed, he’s a guy that can be a difference-maker.”