Virginia Tech boasts one of the most dominant defenses in the country, and while many players and coaches have made this possible, defensive end J.R. Collins is absolutely crucial to the unit’s success.
After recording 11 sacks in his first two seasons with the team, Collins dropped off in a big way in 2012. He labored through some bumps and bruises and only started eight games, recording just 31 total tackles and 1.5 sacks.
This year, he’s back to his old self. He already has 28 tackles, with 7.5 going for losses, and 4.5 sacks.
Last year, the defense allowed 333.2 yards per game. This year, that number is down to just 263.7—and Collins is a big reason why.
The redshirt senior is a monster in both the pass and run game, and he’s helped elevate the defense to new heights this season.
The Hokies have been excellent defending the run this year, only allowing 102.3 yards per game on the ground.
Collins doesn’t deserve all the credit for that success, but his quickness is a huge asset in stopping the run.
Defensive tackles Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins have a done a masterful job of clogging the interior of the line, while Collins has been superb on the outside.
Last year, teams ran all over Tech. Backs frequently broke into the secondary, and it was largely because guys like Collins didn’t have the speed to stop them at the line.
Luckily for the Hokies, Collins has reversed the trend this season, as he frequently chases down opposing backs for big losses.
Just watch this video of a play in the red zone against the North Carolina Tar Heels to see Collins’ speed.
UNC tries to catch the Hokies napping with a reverse, but Collins makes the sure tackle on the outside to force a loss of nine yards.
In that situation, Collins’ big play transformed the game. Instead of scoring a touchdown, the Heels were forced to attempt a field goal that only cut Tech’s lead to 10.
But the end’s speed doesn’t just come in handy in the run game.
Collins has been blowing past opposing offensive tackles all season, causing major headaches for quarterbacks.
Fellow defensive end James Gayle got all the hype for his potential to record double-digit sacks this year, but instead, it’s Collins that’s within striking distance.
His 4.5 quarterback takedowns are a testament to the fact he is simply too fast to be contained on the outside.
Collins had his best game of the season against the Marshall Thundering Herd and his electrifying speed was on display on several occasions.
This video offers a perfect example of his quickness, as he blows by left tackle Gage Niemeyer to sack Marshall’s Rakeem Cato for a 10-yard loss.
Collins is fast enough to fake going outside, then cut back inside and sprint past the tackle in a matter of maybe two seconds.
He’s also managed to get his hand placement on the pass rush down to an art. On the Cato sack, he easily swats Niemeyer’s hands away en route to the big tackle.
His speed tortured the Herd for the entire game, as he finished with nine tackles and 1.5 sacks on the day. The performance was one of the stronger individual defensive showings ever for a Bud Foster defense, as Frank Beamer’s website noted.
Don’t confuse this incredible quickness as a lack of physicality, though. Collins has that in spades.
While Collins’ greatest strength lies on the outside, the biggest way he’s improved his game from a season ago is on the interior.
Maddy and Hopkins are the main men on the inside on most plays, but Collins has used a combination of vision and strength to make his presence known there as well.
Take this video of a tackle for loss against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets as an example.
Collins diagnoses the play as a quarterback run almost immediately and cuts inside.
While left tackle Ray Beno does a decent job of reading Collins’ decision to go inside, Collins easily evades his block with a strong swim move and uses his quickness to finish the play.
The Hokies held the Jackets to just 129 yards on the ground, the third-lowest total under Paul Johnson, and Collins was a big factor in that success.
If Collins can stay consistent over the Hokies’ remaining schedule, there’s no reason the defense can’t be the best in the country.
Opposing coaches have surely noticed his excellence, and while they’ve previously shifted their protection toward Gayle, they might start sending extra blockers Collins' way.
Even if he serves as a decoy, however, there’s no doubt that he’ll make the defense better.
If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason that Collins can’t push this unit to new heights and earn some NFL attention in the process.