BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech senior defensive end J.R. Collins already knew Saturday’s triple-overtime win over Marshall was one of the best games of his career. He had earned a spot on the podium for the postgame news conference as the team’s best defensive player, and the stats — a team-high nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble — backed up the honor.
On Sunday, though, the redshirt senior was “shocked” to learn he had authored one of the greatest performances in program history.
After grading the film and awarding points for winning individual matchups, quarterback sacks and forced turnovers, defensive line coach Charley Wiles realized Collins had scored more points in a single game than any player since Bud Foster became the Hokies’ defensive coordinator in 1995. Collins’s score of 73 was about 20 points higher than a typical standout performance.
It was the latest proof of the transformation Collins has orchestrated off the field over the past nine months.
“Coming from the depths that he came from, he has flipped it 180,” Wiles said Monday. “It’s been a good story. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A year ago, Collins was out of shape and unmotivated. He showed up late or not at all to meetings and classes, and tended to fall asleep in the ones he did attend, Wiles said. The coach would often force Collins to stand up the entire time just to keep him awake.
Midway through the season, Collins lost his starting job. Nobody on the coaching staff knew what to make of his behavior, especially because they had been so encouraged when Collins finished with 6.0 sacks and 57 tackles as a redshirt sophomore in 2011.
By the end of the 2012 regular season, Coach Frank Beamer met with Collins and warned him he was in danger of missing the team’s bowl trip if he committed another transgression, and could potentially be asked to leave the program if he didn’t shape up.
Collins admits to being lost after developing a sense of entitlement and a belief that “I could just go out there and have success.” He had abandoned the work ethic and drive that helped him earn a scholarship at Virginia Tech despite being only an honorable mention All-Met at Brooke Point High in Stafford.
“When things were going bad last year, I wasn’t starting. I gained weight,” said Collins, who had just 1.5 sacks in 2012, when his weight ballooned to 270 pounds (he’s listed at 248 pounds this season). “I wasn’t having the success I thought I would have . . . and I felt like I just needed a change. I needed an answer.”
He found it in his faith.
Collins went to church “off and on” growing up in Stafford, where everyone called him J.R. because he had the same birth name as his father, Lanford.
But his frequent missteps within the program last year resulted in weekly talks with team chaplain Johnny Shelton, now with the Baltimore Ravens. Collins also started going to Blacksburg Baptist Church on Sundays with former offensive coordinator and current recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Bryan Stinespring.
This summer, he spent three weeks in Los Angeles working with at-risk youth as part of a trip with Athletes in Action. New team chaplain David Gittings has organized smaller Bible-study groups this season, and Collins has stepped forward as one of the leaders.
“Guys are just sharing their struggles and just coming together like a family,” Collins said. “Before, I didn’t really apply [faith] that much. I had one foot in, one foot out. But when I started to apply it, I started to see changes. Just like in football, you got one foot in, one foot out, you don’t really see too much change or too much success.”
The experiences offered Collins perspective, and inspiration, to improve upon what he took for granted a year ago.
He no longer views practice as a chore. Instead, Collins has developed a wide array of swim moves by “taking advantage of every rep” and working extra with assistant coach Cornell Brown, one of the Virginia Tech legends he surpassed this past weekend. This past spring, he graduated with a degree in human development.
“He’s just a totally changed person,” linebacker Jack Tyler said of Collins. “I wouldn’t say he was a bad person before, but you can just see he’s more involved with the community. He’s just a better person, and I think that really related to the football field. You can trust him more. You can rely on him more. You know he’s gonna do his assignment.”
Collins, though, has gone above and beyond that through four games this season. He ranks sixth nationally with 4.5 sacks, and dominated the latter stages of Saturday’s win against Marshall, forcing a fumble in the second overtime.
So when Collins approached the podium, and a Virginia Tech official announced “J.R. Collins” would be addressing reporters, Beamer quickly interjected as he finished his own postgame remarks.
“That’s Mr. J.R. Collins,” Beamer said as he shook Collins’s hand.