Maliek Collins just wants to play up to the standard set by under tackles before him. That means guys such as Hall of Famers Joe Greene and Warren Sapp.
Sapp, in particular, is a guy whose game Collins tries to emulate.
As Collins put it, “He’s the reason I have a job. He showed that a short, fat chubby guy like me can play in this league.
“All of those guys set the standard for how you play the position. If you’re not living up to that, you’re doing a disservice to the man.”
For now, Collins appears to be playing up to that standard for the Dallas Cowboys. He’s shown an ability to be a disruptive interior force in Rod Marinelli’s Tampa 2 defense.
The under tackle is one of the most critical positions in the scheme. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner said earlier this month that Sapp is a player he feared most because an inside rush is hard to maneuver around.
“It’s really important. He is the guy. He is the engine up front,” coach Jason Garrett said. “You look at the way this defense has played through the years there has always been a signature guy. You think about Sapp in Tampa. He was a guy who did it as well as anybody.
“It’s penetration. It’s up the field pressure. It’s disruption in the run game. It’s affecting the quarterback. Everybody plays off of that.”
Marinelli couldn’t agree more. He had the luxury of having a player of Sapp’s caliber during his days as a coach in Tampa. When Marinelli was in Chicago, Henry Melton was playing at a Pro Bowl level.
Marinelli now hopes that Collins develops into that kind of player. He has shown early signs of it since arriving as a third-round pick out of Nebraska last season.
“He’s got suddenness and explosion,” Marinelli said. “He’s got some of the same type of stuff [as Sapp].
“He’s built perfect for the position. He’s got that low center of gravity and great feet. He’s like a big fullback playing out there athletically. I think it’s coming for him.”
Collins couldn’t have a better opportunity to perfect his game, either, going every day against arguably the best guard in the NFL in Zack Martin.
Collins consistently gives Martin everything he can handle and more. The Collins-Martin matchups were among the best battles throughout training camp in Oxnard, Calif.
“He’s got that combination of leverage and strength and speed and quickness,” Martin said. “He’s great to work against ’cause I think he’s one of the top three-techs in the league.”
Collins flashed signs of that as a rookie. He had a slow start to the season, recovering from a broken right foot sustained in OTAs, but emerged as the starting under tackle in Week 5 against Cincinnati.
Collins finished his season with 31 tackles, five sacks, a tackle for loss and 14 quarterback pressures. With a full off-season and training camp, more is expected going into his sophomore season.
“He’s very smart for a young defensive lineman,” veteran nose tackle Stephen Paea said. “He should’ve had like eight or nine sacks last year, but that’s just the way it works in the league. I think his sophomore year, this year, is going to be a big year for him. He’s a freak.”
Collins is an easy guy to root for, too. He grew up in a rougher part of Kansas City, Mo., with a single mom and two significantly older sisters (by 16 and 8 years). He lost his father, C.W. Collins, to a heart attack when Collins was 6 years old.
Collins went on to star at Center High School in Kansas City and then had a standout three-year career at Nebraska. He’s a soft-spoken guy — Garrett joked that they might have exchanged 15 words in two years — but Collins is motivated to live up to the standard set by the greats before him.
“I love being the underdog. I’ve always been an underdog,” Collins said. “There were 14 linemen or something like that drafted before me, right? So I’ve just got to dominate. That’s my focus — just dominate.”
Cowboys vs. Raiders
7 p.m. Saturday, KTVT/11