Coming out of high school, Arkansas Razorbacks running back Alex Collins was considered a can't-miss prospect. Head coach Bret Bielema and fans knew that Collins was going to be a special player, and he showed it with one of the best freshman seasons for a running back in Arkansas history.
Collins finished 2013 with 1,026 yards on 190 attempts (5.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He was just the second Razorback ball carrier to rush for over 1,000 yards his first year; the first was Darren McFadden.
However, not even McFadden, or any other SEC back in league history for that matter, ran for over 100 yards in each of his first three games as Collins did.
His spectacular freshman year resulted in numerous postseason accolades. Collins was named the Associated Press' SEC Freshman of the Year, was picked for the SEC All-Freshman team and earned a spot on the 2013 Sporting News Freshman All-American Team.
Collins is one of the most talented backs in the country, regardless of experience. The scary thing about it is that he was just a freshman.
Things are only going to get better for Collins, barring a serious injury. After a historic freshman season and with an offseason ahead of him to work on his game, Collins is primed for an even bigger year as a sophomore in 2014.
There's no doubt that his skill level and talent is above a large percentage of players in college football, but that doesn't mean Collins can't make some improvements to really make a statement next year.
Believe it or not, Collins could get better at gaining yards after first contact. That's not to say he doesn't get yards after contact, because he had numerous runs in 2013 where he shed tacklers and added another five, 10 and even more yards. But, there were times that if he could have made one guy miss or break his tackle, he could have turned a 10- or 20-yard gain into a long touchdown.
That's being a little nitpicky, though, because Collins, overall, is very good at making tacklers miss and keeping his legs driving once hit. He has an innate ability to juke defenders when it appears they have him cornered and make what would've been a small gain or loss into a big run.
Here, you can see for yourself some of those runs during his freshman campaign:
Collins can also stand to get stronger, which is something a lot of younger players have to work on. He doesn't need to add too much and have it negatively affect his ability to make quick cuts, speed and acceleration.
Perhaps one of the biggest factors that goes into a player improving upon his success each year is experience, which is invaluable. The fact that Collins ran for more than 100 yards in his first three games with no college experience speaks volume to just how good he is.
With a year of experience, Collins now has a much better grasp of the offense and what it takes to succeed in the toughest conference in the country.
One of those things that it takes to succeed and that Collins is particularly good at is ball-carrying vision. It's a point that has been hammered home when talking about him, but that's because he excels at it. Most running backs require time before they learn to identify holes opened up by the offensive line and hit them. There are even NFL backs who struggle with it, but Collins' vision is very advanced.
It's his vision that allows him to get all those long runs and is one aspect of his game that stood out. Collins waited for his blocks to be set, and once his line opened up a space, he accelerated through the hole, averaging more than five yards a pop in his first season.
Still, there were times when he wasn't patient enough, running into the backs of his blockers or right into the path of a defender. Many backs have problems being patient, and Collins having trouble with that at times in his first year was no surprise. However, it is one of his best qualities, so it's more of a matter of being more consistent and doing it every rush.
His ball-carrying vision and decision-making when it comes to identifying the hole are only going to get better, which should lead to more big runs and an even bigger year in 2014.
There's also the factor of the O-line being much more experienced. Last year, Arkansas had two seniors and a junior, but the Hogs also had two true freshmen, Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper.
Going off of the Razorbacks' depth chart from HawgSports.com, they will have two seniors, a junior and two sophomores. It hurts to lose center Travis Swanson, but emerging senior Luke Charpentier is a good replacement. Arkansas also loses tackle David Hurd. His replacement on the depth chart would be Austin Beck, who will be a redshirt junior.
The O-line is getting better and deeper under Bielema and line coach Sam Pittman. Just going off size, the Razorbacks line is menacing, averaging a height of 6'6" and a weight of 303 pounds. The line paved the way for Collins and Jonathan Williams, who ran for 900 yards and four touchdowns. That was with two true freshman in Kirkland and Skipper, who were also learning throughout the season like Collins.
Charpentier and Beck have played in numerous games during their career, so it's not as if the Hogs are filling the holes with first-timers. Kirkland and Skipper are emerging stars, both of whom will be even better themselves in 2014 after being starters in the nation's best conference as freshman.
They were beat off the snap at times, leading to Collins and Williams gaining minimal yardage, and also did a lot of learning on the fly. They both improved as the season went on and are building blocks on an O-line that is becoming a major strength for Arkansas.
With the line being more experienced in 2014, Collins should have a lot more holes and opportunities to break loose. As experience is going to make Collins better, it also will make the O-line better, which will lead to bigger numbers for Collins.
One of the main factors that could be the difference between Collins making a big jump next season is the passing game.
There were games last year in which Collins was bottled up because defenses zeroed in on him with quarterback Brandon Allen struggling to make plays with his arm. Allen had trouble all season with his accuracy and decision-making, leading to defenses loading the box to stop Collins and Williams and forcing Allen to make plays through the air.
Allen did improve as the season progressed, but he will be in a heated battle with freshman Rafe Peavey and his brother Austin Allen for the starting spot. The Hogs don't have to have a prolific passing attack, but if they can find a quarterback who will make good decisions and plays with his arm, it would help open up the run game for Collins and allow him to work his magic in open spaces.
Every so often, running backs come along that not only possess the ability to juke defenders to get around them, but to also run them over.
Collins is one of those backs with a unique blend of speed and power who only come around so often. His first year was indicative of the special talent he is. Next season should be a much better year for the Hogs after a disastrous 2013, and lucky for them, Collins is there to help guide them out of the SEC's cellar.
After a historic freshman year and with an offseason to polish his game, 2014 is set to be even bigger for Collins. All fans need to do is sit back and enjoy the spectacle that Collins is.
Bryan Heater is the featured columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.
All stats courtesy of ESPN.com.
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