Collins shows QB can rank as leader, too, at Penn State TAKING CHARGE IN A SNAP

November 10, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

In the past, playing quarterback at Penn State was sort of like being an offensive lineman anywhere else: You hardly got noticed until you did something wrong. This was the program that produced NFL-caliber tailbacks and linebackers, a program that tried to turn Jim Kelly into the next Jack Ham.

Kerry Collins seemed destined to become the latest in a long line of nondescript quarterbacks, guys with big numbers coming out of high school who got caught in what was often a revolving door to coach Joe Paterno's doghouse.

First, it was injuries, broken fingers suffered before and at the end of his sophomore year in 1992. It caused Collins to fall behind John Sacca on the depth chart. The initial injury, sustained in a summer volleyball game, reportedly put a strain on his relationship with Paterno.

"I still knew I was a good quarterback," said Collins, who backed up the younger brother of former Penn State quarterback Tony Sacca until replacing him in the third game of last season. "I never lost confidence in my abilities."

But few imagined the job Collins would do this season. Going into Saturday's game at Illinois, the 6-foot-5, 234-pound senior has become the unsung hero for the unbeaten and No. 2 Nittany Lions. He even might be the most overlooked player in the nation.

Collins has been the country's top-rated Division I-A quarterback for the past six weeks. With a completion average of 68.6 percent and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 18-5, his passing efficiency total (182.9) is ahead of the NCAA record (176.9) set by Jim McMahon at BYU in 1980.

"I don't think you ever want to be surprised when you do well," Collins said earlier this week.

But Collins has caught many by surprise. Not just defensive backs and linebackers throughout the Big Ten, either. While Nittany Lions tailback Ki-Jana Carter has moved up among Heisman Trophy voters, Collins is not even on the list for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given the past eight years to the nation's best senior quarterback.

The list of a dozen candidates, which includes Georgia's Eric Zeier, Colorado's Kordell Stewart and Alcorn State's Steve McNair, was sent out Aug. 31, then reduced to six last week.

Said Collins: "It's something that's out of my control. I can't get wrapped up in things like this."

What consumes most of his time these days is preparing for Penn State's next opponent. It used to be that college quarterbacks would watch game film only with their coaches and teammates before and after practice.

Some still do, but Collins is known for taking tapes home to study. Aside from staying on campus last summer to throw with wide receivers Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott, Collins said his new-found success is in large part due to watching tape in order to pick up a defense's tendencies.

"I have a better overall understanding of what we have to try and get done," said Collins, who had no competition for the starting job this year after John Sacca transferred to Division I-AA Eastern Kentucky. "Last year, I tried to let my physical ability do everything. This year, I've done more mental preparation. I'm watching a lot more film. That's a big difference."

Said Paterno: "He comes to practice every day knowing what we have to do."

Offensive coordinator Fran Gantner said earlier this season that Collins has worked as hard, if not harder, than any other quarterback he's been associated with in his 24 years at Penn State.

Gantner credits Collins for Paterno's willingness to open things up more than in the past.

"He [Paterno] feels much more comfortable taking a couple of chances in the passing game, because Kerry's done such a good job of taking care of the ball," said Gantner. "He does a good job of looking at his second and third options. It keeps people honest."

With three games remaining, Collins is on pace to break Tony Sacca's record of 2,488 yards of total offense and 169 completions set in 1991, as well as Todd Blackledge's 1982 record of 22 touchdown passes. But the only record that seems to matter is his record as a starter, which is 15-2 and includes a 13-game winning streak.

There are some who believe that Collins is merely the right quarter back at the right time, blessed with a pair of wonderful receivers, an experienced offensive line and a terrific tight end in Kyle Brady. But even Engram said recently, "I don't know where we'd be without Kerry."

Still, opposing defenses go in with the idea of stopping Penn State's running game. The Fighting Illini did that last year, but only after three early turnovers helped spot the Nittany Lions a 21-0, first-quarter lead. Penn State wound up winning, 28-14, but Collins was only five of 18 for 49 yards and three interceptions.

"I just had a bad day," said Collins, who had thrown four interceptions the previous week against Ohio State.

Illinois is expecting to see a different quarterback this week. When asked about Penn State's explosive offense and the changes he sees from last season, All-America linebacker Dana Howard said: "Their passing game has gotten a little better, and their quarterback is a lot better. He's become a leader."

ON THE RISE

Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins (right) has improved his performance each year, and now is a contender for the Heisman Trophy.

Year ...... Com. .. Att. .. Yds. .. TD .. Int. .. LG

1991 ...... 3 ..... 6 ..... 95 .... 1 ... 1 ..... 64

1992 ..... 64 ... 137 .... 925 .... 4 ... 2 ..... 57

1993 .... 127 ... 250 .. 1,605 ... 13 .. 11 ..... 52

1994 .... 127 ... 185 .. 1,929 ... 18 ... 5 ..... 82

Totals .. 321 ... 578 .. 4,554 ... 36 .. 19 ..... 82

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