Collins feels free in new Nebraska defense

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Defensive tackle Maliek Collins, arguably the top returning player on Nebraska's roster, offers an assortment of impressive qualities.

He's quick, athletic and powerful, according to defensive coordinator Mark Banker.

But subtle? Not a chance.

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound junior out of Kansas City, Missouri, a second-team All-Big Ten pick of the league coaches last fall in his first season as a starting lineman, smiled wide in this final week of spring practice at Nebraska when asked about his anticipation to compete in the Huskers' new-look defense.

"It excites the s--- out of me," Collins said.

If all else fails with Collins, you'll never mistake his stance on an issue. His excitement over Banker's scheme is rooted in its expectations of the interior linemen. Collins said he feels free to make plays.

To be sure, he made plenty as a sophomore, leading Nebraska with 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Often, though, Collins said, he felt limited in his ability to play aggressively.

No more. Nebraska's new defense emphasizes pursuit of the football.

"If it's there, I'll take it," he said. "There's no more hesitant play. I know I can get out there and play my game."

Collins earned comparisons early in his career from former coach Bo Pelini to ex-LSU All-American Glenn Dorsey. Regardless of the Huskers' system, Collins' was set to enter 2015 as an honors candidate.

The coaching change may only accelerate his rise alongside fellow tackle Vincent Valentine. Together, they form the strength of the Nebraska defense as the Huskers prepare Saturday for the Red-White game to conclude spring drills.

"You're not going to double-team both of them," Banker said. "And if you are, our middle linebacker should make every play."

Collins honed his skills as a wrestler at Kansas City's Center High School. He posted a 48-0 record and won a state title in Missouri as a senior in 2012.

"Maliek is a freak of nature with his athletic ability and being as big as he is -- super athletic for being 315 pounds," said freshman offensive guard Tanner Farmer, another standout wrestler in high school. "He's got great hands. It's hard to get your hands on the guy."

Collins said he'll work this summer to shed five to 10 pounds to play at a weight similar to last season.

"I'm not where I want to be, to be honest," he said.

Still, Collins looks stout.

"I've really been eating less," he said.

His diligence under new strength coach Mark Philipp generated the weight gain this offseason. The two months before camp opens in August figures to bring a renewed stress on conditioning.

"I like the challenge," Collins said, "anything that's going to make me better."

Work ethic is not a concern. Collins regularly leaves the practice field among the final group of players. On Monday, he remained on the turf of the Huskers' indoor facility for 15 minutes after the coaches departed, working with Valentine and the younger Nebraska linemen.

It'll pay dividends next fall, when Collins expects to serve as a primary focus of Nebraska foes.

"I'm ready for the season," he said. "There's nothing like live action out there."

For now, first-year defensive line coach Hank Hughes gets Collins' full attention. And Hughes demands fundamental play as the Huskers work through a transition in coaching style and scheme this offseason.

Freelance is not necessarily encouraged. But Collins can't help himself, especially when the offense, in a practice setting, knows the defensive assignments.

So on occasion, Collins throws a curveball.

"I've gotta add some of me in there, you know what I'm saying?" Collins said. "There's always something I can add to my game, something that can make me better. I'm a jokester. I like to fake guys out. I like to play around. And if the offense knows what we're doing, I might do just the opposite."

Is that OK with Hughes? Not exactly, Collins said.

Banker remains diplomatic on the topic but steadfast in backing Hughes.

"Maliek has to stay within the confines of the defense and realize that he has a ton of talent," said the coordinator, who spent the past 12 seasons at Oregon State and previously coordinated the San Diego Chargers defense under Nebraska coach Mike Riley.

"He doesn't have to maverick away and make stuff up. He just needs to play the call and do his thing, because he can be a big-time difference maker and take it to another level than even what he was at."