It's hard to talk about Alex Collins without mentioning the way he came to Arkansas (Being Bret Bielema just covered it from Bret's perspective). When his mother took his Letter of Intent and ran from the school with it, it didn't slow down AC3 and his journey to Arkansas.
The Razorbacks have a rich and storied running back tradition, and Collins added to the lore and legend in Fayetteville by posting three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons – two were posted when Alex was sharing the running load with Jonathan Williams.
Beginnings – 2013
When Alex arrived in Fayetteville, it wasn't a question of if he would be great, but when he would be great, as the No. 1 RB prospect in the nation, there were expectations. Many on message boards and the Internet were quick to declare him the obvious starter over Jonathan Williams, who had quietly had a pretty good season running the ball in a season most fans would rather forget. While he didn't start in 2013, Collins had at least 10 carries in each game, and went over 100 yards four times, but those all occurred in the first five games of the season against less than stellar run defenses. As the season went on, it became clear that Collins could find the holes and had enough wiggle to get yards against SEC defenses. Though the Razorbacks lost their last nine games, the running game wasn't the problem. Collins was named SEC Freshman of the year, was a Freshman All-American, and on the SEC All-Freshman team.
Sharing the Load – 2014
In 2014, Arkansas returned to winning ways with a bowl game and two SEC wins. Collins was no small part of that, but the running game was somewhat overshadowed by the defense, and while a second season rushing for 1,000 yards is nothing to sneeze at, it's harder to get excited about when it's on a 7-6 team. Still, Collins increased his touchdown total from four in 2013 to 12 in 2014, finished 5th in the conference in yards per game, and became the 2nd Razorback to post consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Collins took a backseat to Williams during the 2014 season, but you couldn't say that Alex was worse than 2013, it's just Williams was clearly blossoming. The duo both posted 10+ rushing TDs and 1,000-yard seasons, and started drawing comparisons to 2006 and 2007 when Arkansas had Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in the backfield. While all four running backs have very different styles, Arkansas fans were proud to have another running back pair in the spotlight.
Alone in the Backfield – 2015
In 2015, Collins increased his total carries from 204 to 271, and used the extra carries to score 20 TDs and amass 1,577 yards. With the injuries to Williams and the rest of the Arkansas running back corps, Collins became the one constant. While Collins had been a consistently good back in 2013-2014, 2015 was his breakout season. Collins went over 100 yards 10 times and had standout moments including his part of the epic 4th-and-25 play against Ole Miss, and was virtually unstoppable in the Hogs bowl victory against Kansas State, scoring three rushing touchdowns on 187 yards on his way to being named MVP of the Liberty Bowl. If you're wondering how he wasn't first team All-SEC, it's only because he plays in the same conference as Alabama's Derrick Henry and LSU's Leonard Fournette.
NFL – 2016 and Beyond
While the big block of text above, and highlight reels of Collins don't make anyone's eyes pop out of their head, Collins has been one of the most consistent backs in college football for three seasons, and has gotten better each season on the Hill. In a world of very high highs and very low lows, Collins is moderation. Collins doesn't have the crushing stiff-arm, the ridiculous hurdles, the breakaway runs, or any novelty that you expect a running back to have in today's college football game. Collins has a highlight real of making the first defender miss in the backfield, setting up a linebacker with a quick first step, and then diving forward for 5 yards. From his first game, he's had moves, vision, and patience that you rarely see in a college freshman, and seems to have gotten just a bit quicker and stronger throughout his three years. Collins doesn't make you look silly, Collins just looks good. His biggest strengths really lie in his quick feet, vision, and well-built frame.
If you want to talk negatives, you can say that Collins hasn't shown a lot of pass catching ability, lost nine of 17 career fumbles, doesn't have the highlight reel tackle breaks, and doesn't have the best pass blocking form. Though if I were to try and spin those, you can't blame the running back when the offense isn't using him as a passing weapon – that's on the head coach and the OC. He has improved his fumble issues, only losing two of five fumbles in 2015. Being on a team that largely called for run plays and play action most of his career, pass blocking hasn't been something that's been a particularly needed skill for Collins, luckily enough, but it's a pretty teachable skill, and most running backs don't come into the NFL as great pass blockers from college.
With the benefit of great blockers and a line that's been hashed and rehashed as the biggest offensive line in college football, there will be questions about Collins as a product of a system. He spent his first two years largely running behind a fullback and didn't spend much time as a single back until 2015, but he's been in a pro-style offense all three years. His stats are largely amassed against the best conference in the country, which produces many of the defensive line players he will be running through at the next level. The virtue of sharing carries through his first two seasons has kept Collins relatively free of injuries, and no injury kept him out of any games. If he's a product of a system, it's obviously a good one.
Collins' career at Arkansas is over and he'll be drafted into the NFL this weekend. It's a time to celebrate his Arkansas career, and remember the good times. I wish he and his parents were going to be in the NFL draft green room so that Collin's mother could grab the jersey or hat before Collins could take his picture at the podium, but alas, Collins will probably be drafted by a team that his mother will approve of (she's very glad he ended up at Arkansas now by the way) with little or no drama to begin what will hopefully be a long and happy career.