Tulsa's Collins, Penn State's Parsons, Alabama's Surtain among NFL Draft defensive darlings
By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Columnist
In modern NFL defenses, versatility is paramount.
As this year's NFL Draft approaches (April 29 – May 1), talent evaluators throughout the league will be poring over the 2021 class to find players who can impact the game in multiple ways.
Earlier, I examined the offensive stars in this year's draft class. Now, let's look at the other side of the ball. Keeping in mind the importance of versatile defenders, I tried to assemble the best team I could using a nickel defense.
Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins planned on having a big year in 2020. That was a tall task, considering how well he played for the Golden Hurricane in 2018 and 2019. If he did, though, he knew he’d have a chance to make some noise ahead of the NFL Draft.
"I knew that I had a chance [to] maybe come out early," Collins told FOX Sports, "but I wasn't sure —especially with the COVID — I didn't know where I was gonna be placed. But I know I at least had a chance to be in the top seven rounds."
He increased his tackles from 85 as a redshirt freshman to 97 the following season. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, he has proven to be nimble enough to play inside linebacker while powerful enough to rush off the edge.
In 2020, he put his athletic prowess on full display with 54 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, four sacks, two forced fumbles and two touchdowns. He needed only seven games to show he was the best defensive player in the country, and he has the Bronko Nagurski Award to prove it.
He is the only First Team All-American to come out of TU since offensive lineman Jerry Ostroski in 1991. Collins was also runner-up for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation’s top linebacker. Not bad for a Group of 5 player at one of the smallest FBS programs in the country.
Tulsa was the only FBS program to offer Collins a scholarship after he played high school quarterback in Hominy, Oklahoma, a town with a population roughly the size of TU's undergraduate body. Now, he’s considered the top outside linebacker available and a good bet to be drafted in the first round.
His ability in coverage makes him unique. With third-and-goal to go with the Tulane offense on the 3-yard line in November, Collins displayed that athleticism and ability to cover.
Post-snap, Collins dropped into coverage, intercepted Green Wave quarterback Michael Pratt’s pass and returned the pick 96 yards for a touchdown to seal the victory for TU 30-24.
"I'm sure when people see me on the field, they really don't think I can cover them, but I think my length gives me [an] advantage over most guys. Once I get my hands on them, you know they're mine, and just staying hip-to-hip with them all the way down the field."
Like Collins, Parsons will add tremendous versatility to the team that drafts him, and his production was outstanding at Penn State. At 6-foot-3, 245, he recorded 191 tackles, including 18 for loss, and 6.5 sacks in two years in Happy Valley. Parsons was a consensus All-American as a sophomore.
He’s most comparable to former Penn Stater and three-time Pro Bowler LaVar Arrington — according to Arrington.
"He is to me — and I want to be careful in saying this — he is almost like the closest thing to me coming out of high school," Arrington told Penn Live.
He added: "I am one of the bigger linebackers. And what makes it more interesting, he can move. Guys who can do what I was able to do and move the way I moved and play the way I played at my size — it's a real rarity. You got a better chance of seeing a unicorn."
Arrington has developed a relationship with Parsons that ought to serve him on and off the field. As one of a handful of high-profile opt-outs for the 2020 season, there are certainly those who want to see he hasn’t lost a step since he won Cotton Bowl MVP more than a year ago.
Heading into the Rose Bowl, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told the broadcast team that he instructed quarterback Ian Book not to throw at Surtain’s side of the field. There is no higher compliment an offensive coach can pay a corner, and understand, Surtain earned it.
In 2020, he was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year, a unanimous All-American. Last season he led the Tide’s national champion-winning defense with 12 pass breakups after being targeted just 48 times in 13 games.
His durability is unquestioned, too, as he made 38 consecutive starts. And bloodlines? His father, Patrick Surtain Sr., was a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro in 11 NFL seasons with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs.
At Alabama, Surtain's roommate was wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Waddle told FOX Sports that he and Surtain II had outstanding battles in practice, and the son will likely be better than the father in the NFL.
"I think his future gonna be bright," Waddle said. "I honestly think he's gonna be a superstar in the league. Just the way his game translates is gonna be easier — him being long and athletic and able to run [and] really get out. [He's] really got fluid hips, and I really think he's gonna be a tremendous challenge."
RJ Young is a national college football columnist for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.