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Zaven Collins belongs in conversation for best defensive player in college football

A master of his craft, Collins is making his case for an All-American selection in Tulsa’s upgraded defense.

Tulsa v South Florida Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Fifty-one names were engraved on the Dick Butkus Award watch list back in July. Over four dozen linebackers were recognized in the preseason as candidates for college football’s most prestigious award for the position. But a notable name absent from the original list is now making his case to be the best linebacker in the sport.

Tulsa outside linebacker Zaven Collins has been a force for the Golden Hurricane for quite some time. The 6-4, 260-pound Oklahoma native ranked second on the team in tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2018 and again as a sophomore in 2019. Collins’ versatile stat-line in his first two seasons as a starter included 182 total tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and six pass breakups.

This season, Collins has elevated his game to another level and his playmaking ability has radiated throughout Tulsa’s defense. He’s an omnipresent defender who presents his stardom on nearly every play. Whether it’s blitzing the quarterback, containing the run, or dropping back in coverage, the outside linebacker is capable of delivering a game-changing hit or turnover at any moment. Here’s what Collins has done in three games — all on the road — in his rise to becoming the best linebacker in the country.

Sept. 19, 2020 — @ Oklahoma State

The Cowboys’ explosive offense (37.0 points per game in Big 12 play) was limited to one touchdown when facing Collins and the Tulsa defense. Collins played an integral role in slowing down 2019 FBS rushing leader Chuba Hubbard, holding him to a mere 3.4 yards per carry. Tulsa snapped Hubbard’s 9-game streak of attaining a rushing average of more than 4.0, and Collins’ disruption at the line of scrimmage was evident in the performance. With the inability to get the engine running through its star halfback, Oklahoma State was held to one touchdown in the 16-7 victory.

Collins’ most significant mark on the game wasn’t necessarily containing the All-American halfback. He invaded the quarterback’s territory on numerous occasions and racked up three sacks against Oklahoma State. Collins shed blocks with relative ease and once getting a hand on an opponent, he was nearly automatic in following through with the tackle. In the defensive showdown, he also played a crucial part in containing the flats and preventing the Cowboys’ quarterbacks from escaping the pocket. For his sizable frame, Collins’ sideline-to-sideline speed is eye-opening, and Oklahoma State’s offense witnessed it firsthand.

Oct. 3, 2020 — @ UCF

Facing a 16-0 deficit against a program with a 21-game winning streak at home, Tulsa would have been excused for dropping its first conference game to perennial AAC powerhouse UCF. While all momentum existed on the Knights’ sideline, Collins reversed things in an instant by scoring without the ball. Collins flew into the backfield with impressive straight-line speed and wrapped up UCF running back Otis Anderson for a safety during the back end of the first quarter. Finally, Tulsa appeared on the scoreboard, trailing 16-2. Collins’ spark resonated throughout the entire team and the Golden Hurricane retained the defensive firepower the rest of the way. Tulsa pulled off a 34-26 shocker in Orlando.

The defense was valiant in the second half, holding the nation’s fifth-ranked scoring offense to one lone field goal. Collins pressured the backfield consistently with a team-high 10 total tackles 3.5 tackles for loss, stifling the Knights’ explosive running game to 3.7 yards per carry. Additionally, Collins became the first player to intercept UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel in the Bounce House (17 touchdowns, 0 interceptions on 163 attempts in 2019). The interception notably occurred in deep zone coverage, proving the linebacker can become a playmaker in nearly every role on every spot of the gridiron.

Oct. 23, 2020 — @ South Florida

After facing two perennial offensive juggernauts in Oklahoma State and UCF, Tulsa’s level of competition shifted down a notch to South Florida. Playing in an NFL venue at Raymond James Stadium, Collins’ production was reminiscent of what we see there on a typical Sunday.

Collins forced two critical turnovers in the 42-13 obliteration in Tampa. Within a minute before halftime, the Golden Hurricane held a 21-6 advantage over the Bulls, but South Florida was driving with hopes of slicing the deficit. Enter Zaven Collins. On third and goal, South Florida quarterback Noah Johnson appeared to have a clear path to the end zone on a scramble out of the pocket. At the 6-yard line, Collins dove from behind and forcefully struck Johnson’s right arm, popping the ball loose. Tulsa recovered the fumble, ensuring the continuation of an impressive streak — the Golden Hurricane have held their opponent to a zero touchdown half in all three games this season.

In the third quarter, Collins made his most spectacular play of the season. He showed blitz on the initial snap, but then abandoned his pursuit of Noah Johnson after reading the quarterback’s eyes. Johnson fired a bullet pass, but Collins instinctively threw his hands up to bat the ball and then corralled it off the deflection. On the runback of his second interception in 2020, he landed an ankle-breaking juke on Bulls’ tight end Mitchell Brinkman and finished off a 38-yard pick six to secure a 35-13 lead. In another dominant performance by Tulsa’s defense — which allows just 18.3 points per game — Collins tied for the team-lead in tackles with six.

Full stats through three games

  • 22 total tackles
  • 18 solo tackles
  • 3.0 sacks
  • 4.0 tackles for loss (excluding sacks)
  • 2 interceptions
  • 51 interception return yards, 1 TD
  • 1 forced fumble
  • 2 pass breakups
  • 1 forced safety

2020 highlight reel

Please keep in mind that this is a year’s worth of defensive playmaking in a 3-game sample size.

It’s time to put Zaven Collins in the conversation where he belongs, as the best linebacker — and possibly the best defensive player — in college football in the 2020 season.