In the wake of one of his three Liberty Bowl touchdown runs, Alex Collins trotted toward the back of the Kansas State end zone, stuck out his right arm, looked down, covered his face and quickly tilted his head. Kids these days call it a "dab" but it might as well have been a bow to the inevitable.
On Sunday, the junior running back did what so many fans had been expecting him to do for weeks: declare for the 2016 NFL Draft. He did this despite a very outspoken love of the Razorback program and a rapport with its fans which few other out-of-state stars have ever cultivated. He decided to say "no" to a senior year which held the potential of SEC statistical immortality and to the promise of even more opportunities to photobomb David Bazzel on a live KATV broadcast.
The decision caps one of the most remarkable yet unpredictable careers in program history. The shifty 21-year-old finished the 2015 season on a tear, racking up 509 yards and 8 touchdowns in the last four games alone. He parlayed the surge into pre-draft grades which apparently peg him for the second or third round, which almost always means too many millions of dollars to refuse. This time was no exception. Still, as preordained as the finish of Collins’ career turned out to be, the beginning was anything but.
As a high school star in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the teams initially at the forefront of Collins’ recruiting radar were local: Miami, Florida State. But Bret Bielema, then Wisconsin’s head coach, swooped in to pitch him hard. The two immediately hit it off. "I know it’s gonna be hard to leave," Bielema told Collins. "But I see men grow the most when it’s outside the state." [Yeah, let’s pretend Malik Monk didn’t see that one]
Collins wanted to play for Bielema but wasn’t immediately sold on Arkansas when Bielema arrived there from Wisconsin in December 2012. One trip to the Catfish Hole, a restaurant in Fayetteville, and its hand-battered catfish, fried shrimp, steak, hush puppies, homemade honey butter and strawberry-and-cream fried pie with a side of vanilla Blue Bell ice cream changed the situation:
WOOWWWWWW !!!!! That's all I can say is WOWWWWW !!!! More to come on my experience after I leave the catfish hole !— alex razrbck collins (@Budda03) January 26, 2013
From then on, Collins was all Hog. So much so that he wore a camouflage tie over a camouflage suit to his signing day ceremony "for the fans." He neglected to tell his family about his decision, though, which caused a bit of drama at said ceremony.
The crux of the matter was that his mom did not want Collins to play so far from south Florida, which is understandable. So then she grabbed his national letter of intent and decided to flee with it. Not so understandable. But Collins was able track that bad boy down, sign it and initiate an overdue heart-to-heart. Likely, Collins explained to his mother he felt at home among northwest Arkansans. Certainly, many of them are a people after his own gun-shooting, deer-killing heart. Mom decided she was fine with his decision and all has seemed good on that front ever since.
Collins burst out of the gates his freshman year to become the first SEC player to rush for at least 100 yards in each his first three games. That surge set the pace for a 1,000 yard debut season, and ultimately three straight 1,000 yard seasons. Sure, Collins was a four-star back in high school but how many fans expected he would join Herschel Walker and Darren McFadden as the only two SEC players to achieve this?
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Collins’ continued upward trajectory was far from a given. In February 2014, Bielema suspended him for a week for disciplinary reasons and at a press conference fired him a public warning: "He's a tremendous young man that has to step up in certain areas to get where we want to be and I think he'll do that." Collins for the most part did, responding with a strong 2014 campaign alongside junior running back Jonathan Williams.
Although always a big man on campus, Collins has shown a kind of open heartedness and public sensitivity that has endeared him to so many fans for reasons beyond mere stats. For one, he actually ended up working at the Catfish Hole himself to be more be around the fans he loved. Like other stars, he posts highlights of himself on social media, but he separates himself from peers by openly caring what some critics say.
In this Instagram post, for example, Collins posts his favorite run from Arkansas’ Texas Bowl romp last season. Most commenters agree the run was cool beans, but one user opines the run was "weak." Collins replies "Haha why you say that[?]" The user replies she’s just "messing" with him. This kind responsiveness was definitely not something we saw from, say, Brandon Allen the last few years.
Heading into 2015, Bielema foresaw very good things for the Razorback program. So did most media and fans. Those expectations started crumbling when Jonathan Williams broke his foot in August and missed the season. Collins was then thrust into an unquestioned alpha dog role for the first time in his college career. He responded with 1,577 yards, 20 touchdowns and zero suspensions, surpassing what many fans had expected of him.
It’s notable injury never forced Collins to miss a single college game. Heading into his career, few people would have projected that since the probability is at some point in 35+ games one of those all-world athletes flying at you and falling on you will produce an experience that leaves you seriously limping or worse. Injuries are the reason SEC greats like Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith and Marcus Lattimore don’t have three straight 1,000 yard seasons to their credit.
Perhaps, had Collins returned as a senior, it would have been too much to ask of the football gods for protection for a fourth straight season. Perhaps he sensed he was on the brink of overdrawing on his karmic football health balance and that he would never be healthier for the NFL than now.
Regardless, there is no doubt his mother Andrea McDonald played a big role in his eventual decision to leave Arkansas -- even if she never could keep him from going there in the first place. "I love you," he texted her this summer. "Hopefully in a year or 2 you won’t ever have to worry about bills or financial problems. You deserve the world and I can’t wait to give it you."
After three years in Arkansas, he’s in a much better position to do just that.
Loved the ride my friend #WoooPig #UnCommon https://t.co/23TAcpifV7— Bret Bielema (@BretBielema) January 10, 2016