April 14, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Thanks to one untested player’s emergence this spring, Marshall offensive line coach Alex Mirabal said he would have no hesitation in going for a Tom Collins.
That would be the Herd’s 6-foot-4, 277-pound redshirt junior guard, not the drink of gin, sugar, lemon juice and club soda.
With three of five weeks of spring practice complete, Mirabal has the five-man starting unit – Chris Jasperse at center, guards Mike Selby and Blake Brooks and tackles Clint Van Horn and Sebastian Johansson -- he hopes to play together until a score is lopsided or something bad happens.
Beyond that, Mirabal is trying to develop a second group, a prospect that has been compromised a bit as backup center Cam Dees is still recovering from an offseason lateral meniscectomy (meniscus tear).
That’s where Collins, from Williamstown, W.Va., comes into the picture – and in a big way, it turns out. In three seasons at Marshall after transferring from the NCAA Division III program at Bethany College in the state’s northern panhandle, Collins hasn’t played a snap. If he continues to make the kind of progress he has this spring, however, Collins will get his opportunity.
“Right now it’s about developing depth on our second and third group,” Mirabal said, “and Tom Collins has had a phenomenal spring, a tremendous spring. Right now, Tom is -- in my mind -- our sixth offensive lineman.
“If something happened at right tackle, he’d be our right tackle. If something happened at right guard, he’d be right guard. If something happened at center, we’d move Selby to center and Collins would be the right guard. If something happened at left guard, he’d be the left guard.
“The only place other than center right now I would not play Tom is left tackle, and that’s because I really believe in what A.J. Addison is doing. I think Tom is our sixth best offensive lineman right now. A.J. is seventh best right now, but he’s still got to get more physical and stronger and learn. (No. 2 right tackle) Sandley (Jean-Felix) just has to tie everything in. He’s 180 degrees from where he was last fall, but he’s still got a ways to go. Cody Collins does a really good job at center, and we just got Cam Dees back, so there’s competition between Collins and Dees.
“If we were starting today, Tom Collins would be our sixth best lineman, Addison seventh, (backup right guard) Trevor Mendelson eighth, Cody Collins ninth and No. 10 is Sandley. Obviously, that’s not counting Dees in there, coming off injury, taking it slow. If Cam’s healthy, he’d be seventh or eighth there, but Tom Collins is sixth in my mind right now.”
It’s an advancement somewhat remindful of last spring, when Johansson emerged quickly and won the starting left guard spot, seemingly from nowhere besides his native Sweden.
A year ago, Collins was red-jerseyed in spring ball as he was coming off shoulder surgery. He had just been moved from the defensive line, where he redshirted in his first season (2012) of Herd football. During last season, Collins was an unused No. 3 at left tackle, playing behind then-seniors Garrett Scott and Gage Niemeyer.
He’s changed positions again, and advanced as Mirabal looks for talent among his second and third units that are a blend of youth and inexperience.
“First of all, there’s Coach Mirabal,” Collins said when asked about his climb in the line’s packing order. “He’s a great coach and he really works with everybody on the line, helps you improve as a player. You can’t help but improve. And our strength staff has really helped me get a lot stronger.
“I had shoulder surgery after my first season here and that was a setback, but once I got stronger, my technique improved and I was just able to step up.”
Collins came to Coach Doc Holliday’s program as a walk-on and he remains one. No doubt, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of two other West Virginians on the Herd offensive line who began their careers with the Herd as walk-ons but later earned scholarships – starters Van Horn and Brooks.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that three of Marshall’s top six offensive linemen – “right now,” as Mirabal says – are from the Mountain State.
That situation contributed to Collins’ move from Bethany, where he played defensive line.
“I transferred because I didn’t feel like that was the right school,” said the dark-haired Collins, who played on Williamstown’s 2008 Class A state title team. “When I came here, I just decided to try to walk on to the football team.
“It wasn’t so much a ‘prove yourself’ kind of thing, but I grew up in a small West Virginia town (2,900 population) and high school and, I mean, there are a lot of people who say you can’t do something. It’s always a dream when you’re a kid to play Division I college football, so I’m here.”
Collins, an exercise physiology major, said he’s fine as well as comfortable with Mirabal’s current mindset of the guard as a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.
“I feel pretty comfortable wherever he figures I need to play right now,” Collins said. “I try to do the best I can wherever he puts me. Last year, playing behind (Scott and Niemeyer) it wasn’t frustrating. It was more about putting my time in.
“I just wasn’t developed enough as an offensive lineman to play at that point anyway. I’ve improved in the weight room a lot, and my mental skills on the football field -- being able to tell what’s going on with the defensive line, the linebackers, being able to read the defense … I’ve improved a lot.”
Mirabal said Collins has been doing more than what’s needed as Brooks’ backup.
“I have two different agendas in spring football,” Mirabal said. “The older guys, the experienced guys, I expect them to implement techniques, things that that I don’t expect from or teach to young guys yet.
“There are three things I tell the young guys. One, you need to know what you’re doing, where you’re going. You’ve got to bite, and that means be physical, be nasty. I’m not going to teach you to bite. Now, technique will come third.
“What I worry about with those (first) five is technique. The others have other things I want to see first. Tom Collins gets that.”