By: Pat Fox
According to Sports Reference, Tulsa Football has only had two consensus All-Americans in its long history: Howard Twilley and Jerry Ostroski. This year could bring them their third. Zaven Collins, the early favorite for AAC Defensive Player of the Year, might just be the best linebacker in the country and the best defensive player in the history of Tulsa football.
Collins is a physical anomaly with the body of a defensive end and the agility of a safety. With football shifting towards passing, the linebacker position has been shifting smaller and smaller to players who are more mobile in coverage. Zaven, though, is more like a throwback to Brian Urlacher or Bill Romanowski (he seems like a nice guy though, he wants to be a doctor!).
The average size of a Power 5 linebacker is 6’2'' 220 lbs according to gobigrecruiting.com. Collins is 6’4'' 260 lbs. That's the average size of a Power 5 defensive lineman. You’d think with his great size, he’d be a run-stuffer who might struggle in coverage. Quite the contrary. According to PFF, Zaven is the best coverage linebacker in the country with a 92.9 grade. With a 92.5 overall grade, Collins is the highest ranked linebacker in the nation. If you’ve watched him at all, it isn’t surprising. He has been all over the place in his first three games: he has eight TFLs, three sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, a safety, and a touchdown. For most linebackers, that would be a good stat line for the entire season. But this man is just getting started.
TU football has historically been a much better offensive team than defensive team. From Howard Twilley to Jerry Ostroski to Paul Smith to Dane Evans, TU’s best players have overwhelmingly been on the offensive side of the ball over the years. That has simply not been the case over the past three seasons.
In 2018, players like McKinley Whitfield, Trevis Gipson, Keanu Hill, and Cooper Edmiston turned TU’s defense from a laughing stock to respectable, even if the record didn’t show it. And then last year, the defense took another huge step up from respectable to actually pretty good. They jumped from 96 to 51 in the SP+ defensive rankings. Led by two first team All-AAC performers/NFL draft picks in Reggie Robinson and Trevis Gipson, the 2019 TU defense kept the Golden Hurricane in every game and even dominated opponents at times.
With multiple key contributors leaving the defense this past offseason, many people, myself included, thought the defense might take a step back. That has absolutely not been the case. So far they are ranked 49 in SP+ on defense, a slight improvement over last year. Considering how much they lost on that side of the ball, including their first draft picks since before I even attended TU, this has been a truly amazing showing by TU’s defense. Players like Jaxon Player, Kendarin Ray, Justin Wright, and TieNeal Martin have taken a leap this season to fill the holes left by last year’s starters. The biggest difference maker for this year’s defense though is Zaven Collins.
TU has never had a game changer on defense like Zaven Collins. He has shown his versatility and playmaking in each of the first three games this season. Against the Pokes, Collins showed what he might be doing at the next level: rushing the passer. He had three sacks: one coming off the edge, one a delayed blitz up the middle, and one where he just pushed the quarterback out of bounds; plus a great tackle for loss against star running back Chuba Hubbard.
Down 16-0 against UCF with absolutely no momentum, the Golden Knights™ had the ball inside their own five yard line. Collins shot the gap up the middle and tackled Otis Anderson for a safety to give TU just a sliver of hope.
Plus he had an interception off of a crazy tip.
If you’re wondering how good TU’s defense was against UCF, look at their box scores. Holding the ninth best offense (according to SP+) to under thirty points and 500 yards is no small feat, especially when our offense set up UCF with great field position in the first half with untimely turnovers.
He had his best game against USF. In the first quarter Collins and Akayleb Evans combined on a tackle to force a fumble. At the end of the second quarter with the game still close and USF in the red zone, Zaven dove and stripped Noah Johnson as he was scrambling.
He saved his best play for the second half. Zaven faked a blitz then dropped into coverage. Despite being a gigantic human being, Johnson didn’t see him and threw it right to the star linebacker. Collins then outran the entire USF offense for his first career touchdown.
Zaven Collins is an absolute machine. He might be the best defensive player the AAC has had since Houston's All-American Ed Oliver, and I don’t think I’m being an unrealistic homer by saying that. He has been a problem for every single one of Tulsa’s opponents and he is shooting up draft boards because of his play. Right now he is projected to go on Day Two (second & third rounds) of the NFL draft. Collins is an interesting prospect because I’m not sure where he will play at the next level. I’ve seen a lot of draft experts project him as 3-4 OLB/EDGE, but I could see him as an OLB or MLB in the 4-3.
Physically he is similar to Dont’a Hightower of the Patriots and Leighton Vander Esch of the Cowboys. I think Hightower could be a good comp for him if he plays in a 4-3 defense. Hightower is one of the best blitzers in the NFL and that looks like a strength for Collins who has a pass rush grade of 80.3 on PFF. Right now, I think Collins is a first round talent. Linebacker isn’t the most valuable position in the NFL though, and that could cause him to go in the second round. Remember, this is my extremely biased TU football fan opinion. I’m not a draft expert.
Tulsa has not had a second round draft pick since the late great Dennis Byrd in 1989, they haven't had a first round pick since Steve August in 1977. Collins is a true generational talent that TU fans should cherish watching while he is still here, because I don’t see any way he is coming back next season. Not many players in TU’s history have had the chance to be Conference Player of the Year, an All American, and the Butkus award winner. Zaven Collins has a chance to do just that. Years from now we could be talking about him as one of the all-time TU greats along with the likes Steve Largent, Drew Pearson, and Glenn Dobbs. That’s how special he is. Enjoy it, Tulsa fans.