When Nebraska’s regular season came to a close following a 28-20 loss to Iowa, defensive tackle Maliek Collins — a Kansas City native who graduated from Center High School — met with his head coach, Mike Riley.
Collins had been thinking of the NFL for quite a while; he believed in his talent, and now, as a true junior, he could apply for early entry. Riley suggested he get some feedback from the NFL’s draft advisory board and make his decision based on the grade he got back.
So Collins did just that, and the grade he got — he was projected to go in the second round, the board said — was enough to convince him to make the jump.
The opportunity for Collins, who just turned 21 earlier this month and is among the youngest players at his position in the draft, to provide for his family — which includes his 2-year-old son, Maliek Jr. — was just too good to pass up.
“I just felt like it was the best decision for me and my family,” said Collins, who announced the news at a press conference immediately following Nebraska’s win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl in late December. “I weighed my options, talked to my family. Prayed about it.”
And now, Collins — a 6-foot-2, 311-pounder — finds himself less than a week away from finding out where the next step of his football career will take place.
Collins, a two-year starter for the Huskers, said he has worked out for 10-plus teams and is confident his work ethic and resume speaks for itself. He was the Huskers’ co-defensive MVP in 2014, when he was just a true sophomore, and recorded 45 tackles — 14 for loss — with 4 1/2 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries.
In 2015, a new coach — Riley — came in, and Collins says he was asked to attack upfield a bit more. Though his numbers fell a bit as he recorded 29 tackles — seven for loss — with 2 1/2 sacks and six quarterback hurries, he was still named third-team All-Big 10 by the coaches and media.
Collins, who credits his high school coach, Bryan DeLong, for help to keep his football career on track in high school, believes the work ethic DeLong instilled in him helps him stand apart in a deep defensive tackle draft.
For instance, when Collins was a sophomore at Center, he said he tried skipping a summer football workout and DeLong, unprompted, drove all the way to Collins’ sister’s house in Kansas City to prod him into showing up.
“I was in the house chilling and he started calling my phone, but I didn’t answer,” Collins said. “But when I saw his truck out the window, I said I couldn’t let him come all the way out there and not answer my phone.
“He did so much for me as as coach — I applaud him for it. I talk to him once a week, just seeing how he’s doing. I would have played football, but I wouldn’t have been where I am now.”
Collins has come a long way since then.
Even though he was just a true junior, meaning he’d only been on campus for a little over two years, he was named a captain before the 2015 season.
“I’m a person where I’ve always got to end on a good rep,” Collins said. “I’ll give my all out of what God gave me. You’re gonna see everything out of me when you see me play.”
Collins feels most comfortable as a three-technique lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard but says he has the versatility to line up across from or shaded on offensive tackles too.
“I feel like I could play both,” Collins said. “I feel like I’m an aggressive three-technique but I can play a four or a five (technique). I can play it, and my best attribute is moving. … I have a good first step and my quickness off the ball is like none other.”
He entered the draft process with the belief he could prove he should be a first-round pick in workouts, and while Collins is widely projected to be a second- or third-round pick in one of the deepest defensive tackle classes in recent memory, he hasn’t given up on that dream.
“I said I was gonna show them, and I still feel like I can be (a first-round pick) this year,” Collins said. “I put it all out there for scouts on individual visits and workouts with teams. We’ll see on Thursday.”
Thursday, of course, is when the first day of the draft will begin. Collins expects to watch it in Kansas City with his family and friends, eagerly awaiting a call from whichever team decides to take him. Whether that call comes Thursday, Friday or even Saturday, Collins will just be happy to compete for a position, and provide for his family.
“When I get that call I get that call, and I’ll be happy,” he said.
Inside the 2016 NFL Draft: interior linemen
From Sunday, April 10, until the draft begins on April 28, The Star will take a daily look at each position.
Chiefs' needs: The Chiefs have a nice starting trio in nose tackle Dontari Poe and tackles/ends Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard, and they like some of their young depth behind them, like Nick Williams and Rakeem Nunez-Roches. But Poe battled through back problems in 2015 and will be a free agent in 2017, barring a new deal or a franchise tag, so the Chiefs — if they hold to recent form — could draft another interior lineman to protect themselves going forward.
Sleeper: South Carolina State's Javon Hargrave has been flying up draft boards since the end of the season. He used his quickness and leverage (6-1, 309 pounds) to rank third in FCS with 16 sacks as a junior in 2014 and had 13 1/2 in 2015.
Travis Britz, Kansas State, 6-4, 293: Harrisonville graduate set career highs in tackles (41), tackles for loss (11) and sacks (four) in 2015.
Maliek Collins, Nebraska, 6-2, 311: Center graduate is projected to be a second-day pick after a junior season in which he recorded 29 tackles (seven for loss) with 2 1/2 sacks and six quarterback hurries.