Orlando, Fla. — Michigan receiver Nico Collins knows first-hand the in-state draw to Alabama.
It's like an indescribable force. If you’re born there, grew up there and are a highly recruited football player, your destiny is pretty much set.
“You go to Alabama,” Collins, a Birmingham, Alabama, native, said this week after practice.
But Collins didn’t, choosing Michigan in large part because of the relationship he developed with head coach Jim Harbaugh. Now he’s here in Florida with the Wolverines (9-3) making final preparations for the Citrus Bowl against Alabama (10-2) on Wednesday.
“I saw this mainly as an opportunity to be different,” Collins said of his decision to head north to Ann Arbor. “And I feel like that's what I did. I chose Michigan, I did what was best for me.
“Nick Saban runs a great program there. Nick Saban's a great coach. But I feel like I fell in love with Coach (Jim) Harbaugh, this team and Michigan. So that's how I made my choice”
Collins, 6-foot-4, 222 pounds, is second on the team in receiving with 33 catches for 681 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns. He’s got the type of physique, hands and ability destined for the NFL, a future he will discuss with his family after the Citrus Bowl. He could return to Michigan for a final season or begin workouts for the NFL Draft.
He said he wasn’t sure if a big game against Alabama might sway his decision. Collins is generally pretty laid back and didn't seem as remotely interested in his future as reporters peppered him with questions after a recent practice here.
“I'm just enjoying this Florida weather with this team, the seniors that are about to leave, just enjoying the ride,” he said. “And just having fun with it.”
Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, co-offensive coordinator at Alabama last season, said all the players are hyped to play Alabama, but understands Collins has a more personal connection.
“You know, the thing we don't want to do is make it different than any other approach that we've had all year long,” Gattis said Sunday. “We've got to stay within the framework of how we prepare each and every game and each and every week and continue on focus on the things we need to focus on and make sure that we're as prepared as we can be for when we take the field.”
Collins and Michigan’s receivers know that the talk since the bowl matchup was announced has been focused on Alabama’s group of top-notch receivers, particularly DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, who are considered potential first-round NFL picks. They’ve been integral for the Crimson Tide, who have the nation’s third most productive passing offense, averaging 343.5 yards a game. Alabama averages 513.3 yards of offense.
Maybe the Wolverines’ receivers have been overlooked, but Collins doesn’t seem too fazed.
“I just feel like, keep getting better and just prove everybody wrong,” Collins said. “As a kid I kind of always liked being the low-key guy. I never liked the hype. I never liked my name everywhere, I just always kind of liked to prove people wrong. That's always been my mindset growing up and it still is. I just want to show people what I can do and what I'm capable of doing.”
Michigan DBs 'crafty'
DeVonta Smith, Alabama’s leading receiver, said the Michigan defensive backs can be confounding. Smith is ranked 11th nationally with 1,200 yards and also has 13 touchdowns.
“Just how crafty they are,” Smith said when asked what impresses him about Michigan’s secondary. “They can switch it up. They can be physical. They can be patient and adjust in the things that they do. They switch it up, keep you guessing, and have you just wondering, like, ‘OK, what is he going to do this time?’”
Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas is familiar with the Alabama receivers, having gone against them at the Nike Opening coming out of high school. He said three are probably NFL first-rounders and is looking forward to the test.
“It’s a challenge, but I bet on myself every time, y’all know that, and I’m betting on my guys,” Thomas said. “We’ve just got to come ready to play. It’s a great team, a great opportunity and we’ve got to seize the moment.”
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian praised Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s scheme.
“They've got a lot of man‑to‑man principles they play, and, as DeVonta said, they're crafty at corner,” Sarkisian said. “I think 24 and 1 (Lavert Hill and Thomas) are both crafty in their man‑to‑man skills. But they do a really good job in their scheme of mixing it up, mixing up different zone coverages, zone covers that match up in the man coverages. So I think the challenge for the wideouts is their releases and how they're running specific routes. And then also for the quarterback, because of the variations of coverages, the quarterback's got to be on point of where his progression and his where his reads need to go.”
Praise for Harbaugh
When Sarkisian was Washington's head coach, his path crossed with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, then Stanford’s coach, a couple of times .
“I think Jim is an excellent football coach,” Sarkisian said. “I mean, he's done it on every level, from University of San Diego, to Stanford, to the (NFL's San Francisco) 49ers, now with Michigan. I mean, he's a fantastic coach, very intense guy.
“The one thing you know, his teams always play hard. They're physical. They're tough and well coached, good schemes. I saw it as a head coach from both sides of the ball. Obviously, I'm seeing it now from a defensive perspective. But I imagine that they play well and coached well on offense and physical outfit. So, really good coach. Really good competitor. Excited for the challenge to go against him again.”