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Jerome Collins: Dealing with change

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, November 12, 2004

Four positions and three coaches later, Jerome Collins has found a home catching the football.

Collins has endured numerous changes in his five years at Notre Dame, but this year, he has seen the field the most, playing tight end and special teams.

Coming to Notre Dame, Collins was a highly-touted wide receiver. Hailing from Wheaton-Warrenville South High School in Warrenville, Ill., Collins was in the top 100 prospects in the nation, according to numerous publications. The Chicago Sun-Times ranked him No. 94 in its 1999 top 100, and the Detroit Free Press ranked him No. 11 on the Best of the Midwest team. He was also an honorable mention all-state selection.

Collins chose Notre Dame for both its education and football program. Plus, his parents loved the school.

“My parents really wanted me to go here,” Collins said. “They thought it was the best fit for me academically and athletically. It was closest to home and the best overall college I was recruited by.”

But when Collins arrived, things changed immediately.

Playing all sides of the ball

Collins, a wide receiver, was no longer a pass-catcher after the first team meeting he ever attended.

“I came in as a wide receiver, and the first meeting we ever had, they moved me to linebacker,” Collins said.

Although Notre Dame recruited him as an athlete, it was quite a different experience for the true freshman. But Collins stuck with it and played outside linebacker up until the middle of his junior year. As a sophomore, he saw action in three games as a linebacker and special teams player, but that was it. Then, as a junior, the 6-foot-5, 256-pounder finally saw some playing time. As an outside linebacker, he played in 11 games as a reserve, and continued to be a solid special teams player for the Irish.

But then, he switched positions as a senior, moving to the defensive line, where he played defensive end. But that was only temporary, as Collins also played linebacker that year. Collins played just over 33 minutes that season on defense, recording nine tackles, including seven solos. Despite the changes, Collins maintained that repeatedly learning new systems wasn’t that arduous of a task.

“That’s why we go to Notre Dame,” Collins said. “I feel like we’re all pretty smart guys. So I think we can pick up stuff pretty quick. But I think sometimes it’s overwhelming because you get comfortable with one thing and then you have to do something totally different. It always takes a little while to get things going again, but it’s not that difficult.”

Coming into this season, Collins had played 24 games and recorded 10 tackles, including eight solos.

But now, the fifth-year senior is a tight end.

“I asked coach Willingham a couple times if I could move to the tight end position, and he had always thought that I still could be successful at defense,” Collins said. “And then at the end of last semester, he asked if I still wanted to play tight end, so they moved me to tight end, and I was pretty excited about that.”

Irish tight ends and offensive line coach Mike Denbrock said Collins has been an asset to the team despite the changes in positions.

“I think naturally, he’s a little more comfortable playing tight end than at linebacker,” Denbrock said. “But I think it’s just an example of self-sacrifice for the betterment of the team. I think he bit the bullet for a couple years and helped us in a position that we needed some depth and some help and now that he’s got a chance to play tight end, I think he’s got a chance to showcase the abilities that he has a little bit more.”

Tightening things up

When Collins moved to tight end, many wondered why. It was arguably the deepest and most talented part of this Irish team, so why did the Irish need a sixth tight end?

Collins, a former wide receiver, just thought it was the position for him.

“I feel like I have [gotten used to playing tight end] just because I’m the most comfortable doing it,” Collins said. “It comes naturally to me, playing offense and getting the ball in my hands and blocking. I feel like it’s definitely a home for me.”

Collins has struggled to see significant time on the field due to a nagging ankle injury, but against Stanford, he made his presence felt. Collins had three catches for 45 yards as well as a key play on special teams in the Irish win. However, Collins also sprained his ankle and has been hampered ever since.

“I’ve been happy but I’m never satisfied,” Collins said. “I would have loved to have played more. But after the one game I had a good game I sprained my ankle, and I’ve been nursing that for the last couple weeks. It seems like every time I feel like I’m ready to get back in there, I reinjure it again.”

Collins is part of a deep tight end corps that includes fellow fifth-year seniors Billy Palmer and Jared Clark with youngster players John Carlson, Anthony Fasano and Marcus Freeman rounding out the group. When Fasano and Freeman have been injured, the rest have stepped up for the Irish.

Despite the ups and downs and many changes during his five years, Collins has tried to maintain a positive attitude.

“It’s been frustrating, only from the fact that, anybody who comes to Notre Dame, they want to play they want to be out there on the field, they want to contribute,” Collins said. “So that’s the only frustrating thing. Coaches are going to change because that’s the way things are run in college. Position changes – they’re just trying to put me in the best spot to get me to play on the field as quickly as possible and it just seems as though it took me a little bit longer to get into a position that I could be the most successful and help the team the most. It’s been a bit frustrating but you just gotta move on to the next thing.”

Collins has no regrets. Despite coming to Notre Dame with high expectations, he understands that thinking about the past is not going to help things.

“I did [wonder what could have been] before, but that was a time when it was the most frustrating because I was always second-guessing my-self,” Collins said. “Now I choose not to second-guess myself because if I do that I’ll always be questioning it and I won’t be able to get ahead in the game.”

One last sprint

When Collins runs out of the tunnel for the last time, he doesn’t know how he’ll react. Many times, it’s an emotional experience, but Collins said he usually doesn’t let his emotions get the best of him.

“I’ve never been a really emotional person,” he said. “But to think about that possibly being the last time I put on a Notre Dame helmet, or just a football helmet in general, that’s going to be an overwhelming feeling, regardless of how much I try to hold it back.

“All good things must come to an end I guess. But thinking about the possibility of having to get a real job or not playing football anymore is kind of weird, but you get over it.”