ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was no surprise to Michigan fans paying attention that second-year wide receiver Nico Collins had his best game yet as a Wolverine in the season opener at Notre Dame.
Collins had three catches for 66 yards, including a 52 yard play that opened up the second half — a breakout go route that has been missing the past year for Michigan’s vertical offense.
The lanky wideout spoke about how he was able to reel in such a bomb on Monday, blowing by the defensive back and getting separation — something we haven’t seen from the receiving corps in the last calendar year.
“The separation I had, it was just top-end speed – just go!” Collins said. “’Don’t let him touch you,’ that was my mindset – ‘Don’t let him get his hands on you, he’ll try to slow you down!’ I knew Shea was gonna throw it to me. I knew he was gonna air it out, let me go get it – make a play.”
While he made that play look easy, it took a lot of work for Collins to get to this point. That’s where new wide receivers coach Jim McElwain — the former Florida head coach — made a difference.
McElwain joined the team this past winter and put a strong focus on releasing from the line of scrimmage and getting open. As he told reporters on Wednesday, the big focus this entire offseason was on making sure that the quarterback was throwing to a receiver that wasn’t blanketed by a defensive back.
From what he saw in Saturday’s game, mission accomplished.
“I thought we had pretty good separation throughout the game,” McElwain said. “It’s something we work on every single day, and our guys I think have seen the importance of it. You can’t catch it if you’re not open! The No. 1 most important thing is how do we get open? I think they’ve responded well to being conscious of gaining separation.”
Though Collins had a polished look as such, McElwain says that wasn’t the case earlier this year.
Collins played in four games in 2017 and had 3 receptions for 22 yards, and though he had some in-game experience to rely on, that didn’t mean that he was ready to take that next step forward.
After working with McElwain this past spring, much of that changed — in a hurry.
“I thought tentative early when he got here in the spring,” McElwain said. “His confidence grew in the what and then the how. He just seemed to play faster and faster. He was a fun guy to be around. It’s important to him, as it is all these guys. Just to see their growth – it’s kinda cool.”
But how did he grow as a receiver in the past year?
McElwain joked that he was already there physically, but it was a matter of knowing how to properly acclimate and prepare for games such as these.
“He was tall to begin with!” “I think his understanding of what, why and how has been pretty darn good. I guess I’d say his assignment grade was pretty darn good in this game, which tells me he did a good job of preparation. Now we’ve just got to continue that. But he’s obviously going to get a lot of reps, so he needs to maintain that throughout.”
As far as how Collins sees himself, he shared on Monday how he feels his personal improvement has gone this offseason.
“Been a smarter player, smarter receiver,” Collins said. “Just getting a little faster, getting used to the feeling of being in college.
“Just reading the defense – the safeties and corners, what kind of leverage they’re using against me. It’s finding the small things, like if I run a slant or a hitch or something, it’s, ‘What is the defense gonna be?’ And trying to find that hole, instead of just running a route and running into stiff coverage. Just finding the open space.”
Of course, Collins still needs work on and off the field before he becomes a bona fide star and lives up to his potential of being a former four-star.
Saturday’s game was a good start — née — a great one. But McElwain says there’s still room to grow.
But, he’s pretty happy with how things turned out for the 6-foot-five wide receiver in his first game of the season.
“I would say that for everybody working, you could improve, right?” McElwain said. “You can always improve on something. Technically, he played pretty darn good. From a grade standpoint. I think there was a couple things that they showed that maybe we just need to continue to adjust to and go back to your training. But, overall, I thought he played pretty decent.”
Collins and McElwain now turn their focus to Michigan’s home opener, as the Wolverines will take on Western Michigan at The Big House on Saturday at noon EST.