BLACKSBURG — When J.R. Collins reflects on all the ways he wasn't upholding his end of the bargain as a scholarship football player at Virginia Tech, he wonders about the true identity of the guy who was standing in his shoes.
Who was the immature kid who never set his alarm for 6 a.m. Monday meetings and routinely oversleep? Who was the kid who would gorge himself on every morsel of food Virginia Tech put in front of him — saving food for later at night even though he wasn't hungry — until he was so out of shape he couldn't recognize the player he once was? Who was the guy that just stopped working?
Collins isn't sure. All he knows is that guy is gone.
"I've grown up a lot," said Collins, a 6-foot-2, 248-pound senior who will lead Virginia Tech on Thursday night at Georgia Tech (3-0 overall, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference). "Last year, I wasn't mature and I wasn't focused in on the little things. If you add up all the little things, they turn into big things.
"That's what happened to me. I didn't come in with the right mindset last year. I was thinking I could just have success without working for it."
Coming into Thursday night's game, he leads Virginia Tech (3-1, 0-0) and he's third in the ACC with 4 1/2 sacks, having logged at least one sack in each of his past three games. It's a long way from where he was at the conclusion of last season, when he'd loafed so much he was nearly left behind for Virginia Tech's trip to the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
During his sophomore season at Tech, Collins said his parents were arguing a lot over little things back home in Stafford. It was a difficult time for Collins, who couldn't be home to deal with the problems, but he still channeled that frustration into a strong season.
He earned honorable mention All-ACC honors while starting 14 games and amassing 57 tackles, 9 1/2 tackles for loss and six sacks. After that kind of success, he came back for his junior season a changed man — a nearly disastrous change.
"I thought last year he stunk," Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. "He got fat, and he was a problem. He knows that. He has flipped it 100 percent. He's graduated. We stayed the course with him with what we demanded of him, but he was a pain. He has been fantastic this season and fun to coach again."
Collins went from one of the brightest spots on Virginia Tech's defense to a player struggling to keep his starting job. He played in all 13 games last season, but he only started eight, finishing the season with 31 tackles and just 1 1/2 sacks.
"I recruited the guy, so we had some heart-to-heart and father-to-son style, come-to-Jesus visits," Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "We tried it all with him — tough love, patting him on the back and just doing a lot of different things.
"He was one of those guys from the 2011 group that thought, 'We can just show up the next year and go do it again.'"
Collins graduated in May with a degree in human development, but school wasn't exactly a priority for him last fall. He routinely skipped mandatory study halls, showed up late for team meetings and stayed up late.
On Fridays and Saturdays last season when Virginia Tech was on the road, Collins looked like a guy prepping for an eating contest as opposed to a college football game. He binged on chicken wings, Chick-fil-A and deli sandwiches, fried chicken — and whatever was provided for the players on the Hokies' training table.
"Everything is buffet-style, and I was just eating all of it — I mean, all of it," Collins said.
It caught up to Collins when Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer told him in December the coaching staff was considering leaving him behind for the bowl trip. That was a wake-up call.
"I started to get a bad reputation," said Collins, who added another kick in the seat of the pants came in the spring when he had to compete for his starting job again with speedy sophomore Dadi Nicolas.
"My first thought was my mom wanted to come to Orlando. If I'm not there, she's going to be like, 'What's going on?' I thought about how embarrassing it would be. It was something I had to straighten up so I could get to that bowl game."
Kendal Rivers, a senior defensive tackle at Christopher Newport University who became good friends with Collins when Rivers was a junior at Brooke Point and Collins was a senior, helped Collins rearrange his approach by getting Collins to tap into religious faith. Rivers and Collins spent nights talking on the phone, with Rivers serving in the role as Collins' personal motivational coach.
"I kind of live my dream through him," said Rivers, a second team All-USA South selection last season who added his dream school coming out of Brooke Point was Virginia Tech. "Even though I play football at CNU, and I love it and I've done well, I still always tell him he has a tremendous opportunity on his hands where he's at. Don't give it away. I prayed for him."
Collins started watching what he was eating and lost weight in the offseason. He no longer has to worry about study halls, and the 6 a.m. meetings? Well, Virginia Tech has changed that routine.
"I was looking forward to showing up every time to show the coaches I could do it, but I'm not complaining about not have to do it either," Collins said.
He's returning the favor to his friend by propping up Rivers' spirits as he recovers from a torn meniscus in his left knee. Rivers hopes to be back on the field in a few weeks, but Collins said Rivers is one of his main inspirations for the senior year he's had thus far.
"He's always been there for me, and he's a real smart guy, so I trust him a lot," Collins said.
"Now, after going through all that, I don't want to have any regrets about saying I didn't go hard this year. The only way to do that is just to go harder than ever before. I'm having fun now."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642
VIRGINIA TECH (3-1 OVERALL, 0-0 ACC) AT GEORGIA TECH (3-0, 2-0)
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. TV: ESPN.
WHERE: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta.
THE SKINNY: Though Virginia Tech used a few Sunday practices prior to last weekend's win against Marshall to work on Georgia Tech's option, the fact is the Hokies are headed on the road after just three practices this week in preparation for the Yellow Jackets. With QB Vad Lee and RB David Sims leading a Georgia Tech attack that's fourth in the nation in rushing offense (345.3 yards per game), three practices might not be enough.
PREDICTION: Georgia Tech 27-17.