The Arizona Cardinals went out and added some depth to their linebacking room, taking Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins with the 16th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
While we won’t know right away how he’ll fit in the Cardinals defense, one thing’s for sure: The small town kid from the Hominy, Okla., is ready to hit the ground running in the desert.
“My expectations are very high. I want to go in, I want to learn everything. I want to know every detail of every formation, about every scheme,” Collins said. “Those are the big things for me, that’s what the big things were in college for me. Those are the huge things I incorporate into my game and the way I play. I think about those things every down, situational awareness, game awareness.
“Those things matter a lot to me and I think those things matter a lot to organizations, teams, players because everyone at the next level is at a huge physical advantage over everyone else and that’s something I look forward to, trying to take advantage of.”
Collins spent his night away from the spotlight, away from Cleveland where the draft was held, and instead held a party with those closest to him.
Right by his side was his mom Haley Collins, who has been the linebacker’s rock through his football journey. It was an emotional moment for the two when he heard his name called by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“Me and my mom, my mom don’t make much a year and she was taking money out of her 401k to send me all around the U.S. to go to all these different camps, whether coaches wanted me on offensive, defensive, hell, special teams. I didn’t care,” Collins said. “We were going out there and performing for these coaches and that’s what we wanted to do to be able to get a scholarship or even a chance.
“It meant the world to go do that and all the sacrifices we made. It brings back so many memories from a small town kid that just wanted to be great for me, for all the other kids out there. Go be great. Don’t let anybody tell you or confine to what you want to do in life, just go be great.”
Collins’ ascent as a top linebacker in the 2021 draft class didn’t come without its trials, however.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder played quarterback in high school before switching to solely defense in college. During his younger years in Hominy, Collins was told he would never be a big enough player or be able to play at the Division I level.
He proved the naysayers wrong by tallying 236 tackles, 7.5 sacks and five interceptions over the course of three seasons at Tulsa (32 games).
The transition from offense to defense helped in more ways than one.
“Making that transition was huge for me. I understand offenses better, I understand the schemes better, I understand situational awareness,” Collins said. “Offense is central tendency, you know first down, second down, third down. What are the three most formations they use in those downs. Those are huge for me and what I want to do on this defense. It’s something that I look forward to and it’s something that comes part of the game.”
Leading up to the draft, Collins set a personal goal of landing in the first 20 picks. He not only wanted to achieve the feat for himself, but for all those who lent a hand along the way.
“It meant the world to me to be able to do that,” Collins said. “I worked hard, my teammates pushed me unreal, my coaches pushed me unreal. It’s something that I really, really looked forward to. Being able to be in this position like I am, I can’t wait to grab the bull by the horns and just go with it.”
Just because he’s reached the ultimate level of the game doesn’t mean Collins is ready to let up. There’s still much do on his agenda.
“I want to prove myself to the world, prove myself to the National Football League that I can do this, that I can be great,” Collins said. “It’s something that I feel I’ve proved to myself, to my family, to my friends, to the University of Tulsa, to all 32 organizations that I’ve been able to do it. So yeah I definitely took a chip on my shoulder and was able to do that.”
“I’ve been working towards this my entire life and I love it,” he added. “I’ve only dreamed of Arizona and being in that organization with that community, with everything there. It’s awesome.”
As for off the field, Collins hopes his personality and fun-loving spirit can have a daily impact on those around him.
“As a person I’m loud, I’m big. I love to have a great time, love to encourage people to have a good time and just make their day better. That’s what I encourage,” Collins said. “I want everyone when they meet me and leave to be like. ‘Man, I had a great time around him and I have a better standpoint on life since I’ve been around him.’ That’s something that I look forward to and going to Arizona.”