By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau • firstname.lastname@example.org
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Alex Collins didn’t have fear about adjusting to his new surroundings. In fact, the Miami native willingly dove in.
He spent the summer getting to know other Arkansas students. He learned all he could about campus life and Northwest Arkansas. Collins played a little beach volleyball, posed for pictures with new friends, signed autographs for kids, went to the lake a couple of times and also discovered he’s not bad at badminton.
"I’m in a new area," Collins said Sunday, sitting at his locker in the Fred W. Smith Football Center during Arkansas’ media day. "I’ve never been here before. I don’t know anything about anything. So the first thing I wanted to do was get friends with the locals. Be friends with people who lived here all their life. Find out what’s fun.
"I just wanted to get active in the community so I’m not just a guy that’s always hiding in my dorm and hiding in the stadium."
There’s no doubt Collins accomplished his summer goal. Now, the Razorbacks are hoping the running back’s acclimation to college football will come just as easy as they move into the second week of preseason practice.
The freshman, who was one of the highest rated players at his position when he signed with Arkansas in February, is being counted on to help a backfield that will be led by sophomore Jonathan Williams and senior fullback Kiero Small. He showed moments of being more than capable during Arkansas’ first preseason scrimmage, leading the Razorbacks in rushing with 40 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
It wasn’t a perfect day by any means. But Collins believes it was a good start.
"It’s been a long time since I’ve been in pads," Collins said. "So it felt good just to get running, you know what I’m saying. Just get behind those big offensive linemen."
The scrimmage wrapped up Arkansas’ first week of practice. Most of the work was done behind closed doors, but players and coaches said Collins’ instincts, speed, toughness and agility were noticeable leading into Saturday’s public appearance.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said the week has shown there’s no doubt Collins is a "gifted player," while quarterback Brandon Allen believes the running back has handled everything that has been thrown his way since arriving on campus.
"Over the summer he was pushed a lot," Allen said. "We wanted to see what he could do and I think he did a great job. Now he’s showing that he’s not just a great athlete, but he’s getting the mental work done."
Running backs coach Joel Thomas — who simply said "he’s good" when asked about his first impression of Collins after two practices — said Arkansas knows it has a special talent in the backfield. Getting him ready to help Williams — who remains Arkansas’ No. 1 running back and is expected to get the bulk of the work — remains a work in progress as Arkansas moves into its second week of preseason practices.
"We’re seeing flashes," Thomas said early last week. "It’s my job as a coach to put him situations where I know he should flash when he’s put in a situation and then he goes out and proves it right. And then I need to put him in a situation where he’s going to be put in stress and find out how he handles that adversity and then coach off of that to where I can keep on getting him better and better."
Collins did show a sign of his youth on one play during the scrimmage. He took a hand off around the right side and, when nothing developed, reversed field and went left. It didn’t take long for defenders to chase Collins down for a minimal game and for Bielema to remind him he’s not playing high school football.
"It’s probably a good thing that didn’t go for anything because if that went for big yardage he probably would have thought he could do that on every play," Bielema play. "So he’s got to learn to get the yards we can get and be happy with it."
Arkansas also discovered Collins has things to learn off the field as well.
The running back was experiencing headaches last Tuesday, prompting Bielema to check with those that know him best in South Florida. Bielema was told the source of Collins’ headaches was likely the fact he hadn’t been eating.
"Lo and behold, he skipped two days of breakfast," Bielema said. "So we had it marked down. So now he had someone that sits down and watches him eat breakfast. … I think he’s got to understand the bigger picture. What you did in high school isn’t going to work in college. You’ve got to make a change in order to change the level you’re playing at."
Collins realizes his breakfast mistake now. He said it won’t happen again because "if you want to get better, you’ll do what you have to do to get better."
It’s one reason why he has no trouble turning to veteran players like Small and Williams. He knows their experience will only help prepare him for the 2013 season.
"You know people are willing to help you and you have a chance to get better, why not reach out to them as much as possible?" Collins said. "They know what they’re doing. They’ve been doing it. They’ve played in the college game.
"I trust them, I believe them and they’ll lead me in the right direction."
Arkansas is confident Collins – in time – will do the same for them.
"I think he’s done a nice job as a freshman," Thomas said. "We’ve just got to keep on feeding him to see where his ceiling’s at."