Nico Collins had a breakout year in 2023 and will enter the AFC wild-card round as Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud’s top receiver option. Collins would be the last person to tell you this. His teammates and coaches attribute his success to his humility.

Collins does not appear to be a big talker.

“He didn’t really talk much,” Stroud remarked last week when asked about his first impression of working with Collins.

Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain, who served as Collins’ position coach at Michigan in 2018, labeled the third-year receiver as “quiet.”

“Humble, talented,” McElwain told USA TODAY Sports, “and he’s obviously a great person.”

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Stroud was struck by Collins’ persistence as he lined up.

“You can tell he really wanted to get off the ball,” Stroud told journalists. “He firmly planted his foot on the ground and stated his destination. When he jumped to catch a fade or something, he grabbed it with both hands and aggressively tossed it away. All the attention to detail, like the tiny things that many people probably don’t see that he does on a daily basis on his routes.”

That sounds a lot like the player McElwain knew at Michigan, where he immediately saw the commitment Collins had in the pursuit of being great.

“Everything he did, he took serious,” McElwain said. “He studied it. Very obviously, he’s a great talent. But I really think he worked himself into being a great player.”

Houston Texans wide receiver Nico Collins (12) celebrates his touchdown reception with center Juice Scruggs (70) and quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) against the Denver Broncos in the second half at NRG Stadium.

Collins first popped on McElwain’s radar when the coach held the top job at Florida. A native of Pinson, Alabama, Collins was a consensus four-star recruit who held offers from several Southeastern Conference schools. He chose to go further from home and arrived at Michigan before the 2017 season.

Under McElwain, the coach said, Collins – who is a big target at 6-foot-4 – worked on his hands to the point he became a “a natural catcher.”

“I could just see it develop. He always had the size and the speed,” McElwain said. “He’s actually got pretty sneaky one-cut ability, which for a long guy, sometimes you don’t see that. Just the physical nature and really the way he became a real ball-catcher. I feel like his hands got better and better every day in practice.”

Attention to detail during practice drills and making it a point of emphasis on every repetition was the difference-maker. By his sophomore season in 2018, Collins’ end-of-year statistics looked nothing like what he posted his freshman year (two games, three catches, 27 yards). Collins caught 38 balls for a team-high 632 yards and six touchdowns. He scored seven times the next year to lead the Wolverines and had 729 yards on 37 catches (19.7-yard average per reception) in 12 games.

When the 2020 season rolled around, the Big Ten initially wavered on playing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Collins opted out, signed with an agency and began training for the NFL draft in Florida.

The Texans took him in the third round (89th overall) in the 2020 draft. McElwain, who coached Collins for that 2018 season, wouldn’t say whether the receiver not playing his senior season hurt his draft outlook.

 “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” McElwain said. “I just know being around him, the guy’s a great talent.”

It took two seasons, but Collins blossomed in 2023. He posted more catches (80) and receiving yards (1,297) than his first two seasons combined (70 catches, 927 yards). Collins scored eight touchdowns and finished seventh in the NFL in yards per reception (16.2).

The arrival of Stroud, a lock to be Offensive Rookie of the Year, certainly helped. Collins had five 100-yard games, punctuated by a 195-yard effort in the regular-season finale against the Indianapolis Colts – the 75-yard touchdown he caught on the Texans’ first play from scrimmage playing a large part in that performance.

“Nico has done an outstanding job this entire year,” first-year Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He deserves a ton of credit for the season that he’s had – a career year. He’s shown up every single week and made play after play, whether he’s double covered, it doesn’t matter. He’s shown up with a willingness and a want to be that leading receiver for us, and he did that, and he deserves a ton of credit for that.”

Houston offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik said designing one-on-one matchups for him is becoming a more difficult challenge as opponents devote increased attention to the target, especially as the Texans have navigated the end of the season without rookie wideout Tank Dell.

“He’s been a stud,” Slowik said.

Collins has altered the passing game at all three levels: downfield, intermediate and as a catch-and-run receiver.

“He’s taken such great strides just from where he was the last couple of years watching him on tape,” Slowik said. “It’s been really fun to watch and be a part of and it changes our team. You can see it spread across the whole offense in the culture of what we’re doing.”

Texans receivers coach Ben McDaniels – who was an offensive assistant at Michigan in 2018 – is familiar with Collins and has been instrumental in his development, both McElwain and Slowik said.

But it all comes back to the person Collins is.

“Anytime you have someone like that, the right kind of person, and Nico is an unbelievable individual, and they’re about the right things, and they put the work in, you’re always excited to see what they do,” Slowik said. “He’s far exceeded anything that I think any of us could have imagined.”

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