FORT WORTH, Texas — Michael Collins knows exactly what he gave up for a shot to play quarterback at TCU.
His future was set. Collins was a quarterback at the University of Pennsylvania and on the path to potentially becoming a three-year Ivy League starter. He was studying at The Wharton School, one of the world’s most prestigious business schools.
But after quickly figuring out that he was good enough to play at the Ivy League level, Collins wanted more.
“I just realized after a year that it wasn’t the college experience or football experience that I wanted,” Collins said. “I wanted a big-time college football experience, a chance to chase my dream and possibly play at the next level.”
Collins is one of the best quarterbacks in Connecticut high school history. He earned attention from some major-college programs, but committed to Penn well before his senior season. He felt like maybe — just maybe — he was good enough to play major college football.
So, without a scholarship or anything surer than a dream in hand, Collins packed his bags and moved from Philadelphia to Fort Worth.
“I told him that he was crazy to leave an Ivy League school that promised him that he was going to be the next starter,” New Canaan High School coach Lou Marinelli told DieHards. “I told him that you better think long and hard about that.”
Collins’ decision didn’t come as much of a shock to those back home in New Canaan. They know he aspires to greatness.
“He was always in the pipeline at New Canaan,” New Canaan News sports editor Anthony Parelli told DieHards. “But I’m not sure people realized how good and how committed he would be.”
New Canaan is one of the proudest programs in Connecticut. Marinelli is the winningest coach in state history, notching 12 championships in 37 years at New Canaan. Eight quarterbacks have gone on to play college football, and 22 New Canaanites have played at the FBS level under Marinelli’s tenure. It’s also spawned a diverse group of storied alumni including political commentator Ann Coulter, actress Katherine Heigl, comedian Martin Mull and Olympic gold-medal decathlete Bill Toomey.
But even in such a historic program, Collins set himself apart.
Collins had success as a first-year junior starter. He threw for 2,627 yards and 32 touchdowns while leading the Rams to a state championship.
His senior season was one for the ages. Collins threw for 3,414 yards and a state-record 54 touchdowns in a dominant season. He tied a state record with 9 touchdown passes in a win over Trumbull, and also threw for 6 touchdowns in four separate games. The Rams capped the season with another state championship.
“He’s absolutely one of the best kids I’ve ever had,” Marinelli said. “He’s special — he really is. And football is really only part of it.”
Everyone in New Canaan raves about his work ethic. In high school, Collins would use study hall and periods between classes to watch film and improve his game.
The hard work paid off. His talent jumps off the film when evaluating his Hudl tape. Collins has a strong arm and makes even the hardest throws look effortless.
“He was way ahead of his age in terms of pure pocket presence,” Parelli said. “He was a pro-style quarterback in otherwise a completely spread league. He’s able to stand in the pocket and deliver.”
His tape shows that he can make every collegiate throw — from go routes and screens to posts and fades.
“He throws it as well as anyone I’ve ever had, and really anyone in the state of Connecticut ever has,” Marinelli said.
Marinelli doesn’t just throw around the word special; it’s a select group considering all the talent he’s coached. He specifically points out Boston College defensive end Zach Allen, who played at New Canaan. Allen is a potential first round NFL draft pick in 2019.
The 6-foot-5, 214-pound Collins, he said, is that kind of special.
When Collins earned an offer from Penn after his junior season, it was hard to resist. It gave him the opportunity to study at a national top 10 university. Both of Collins’ parents went to Fordham University, so education was always a priority.
“How can you turn down The Wharton School of business and everything it can give you?” Collins said.
He committed to Penn in May 2015, earlier than most. But things got murkier after that. As a Penn commit, some major programs dismissed him as an Ivy League talent and erased him from their boards.
Major college football programs weren’t scouring Connecticut for talent. Just five players in the Class of 2016 went to Power 5 schools, including a pair of New Canaan teammates. For comparison, the state of Texas produced 55 4- or 5-star recruits alone the same year. Fewer Power 5 schools are recruiting New England.
“Connecticut has not been a huge recruiting ground for Division I players,” Marinelli said. “I think that’s changing now. But with quarterbacks, if I were a college coach, I’d be very careful. I just think no one wanted to take that chance on him.”
Collins did eventually receive interest from a few major schools, including Boston College and Rutgers. However, the only FBS offer that materialized was UConn. The academic upside of playing at Penn made more sense. He enrolled in the summer of 2016.
The coaching staff at Penn quickly embraced Collins’ ability. He won the backup quarterback job behind All-Ivy senior Alek Torgersen, completing both his pass attempts for the Ivy League champion Quakers during his freshman season.
With Torgersen graduating, the staff saw Collins as the future. But Collins saw something different — the chance to play at college football’s highest level.
After one season with the Quakers, Collins decided to transfer.
Finding a new path
The people around Collins ensured that he did not take his transfer decision lightly. Marinelli called him crazy, and Collins’ parents talked to him extensively.
“Academically, with all the advantages that an Ivy League school has to offer later in life, we had to make sure he understood the decision he was making,” Michael’s father, Rich Collins, told DieHards.
Collins’ parents ensured that he completed a full year at Penn before transferring, to assure he was making the right decision. Additionally, they didn’t want him to run away from the difficult coursework. It didn’t end up being an issue, as their son did very well.
“The people at Penn were terrific,” Rich Collins said. “The coaches he had at Penn were first class. It wasn’t about the coaching, it wasn’t about the school. It was just about the opportunity he had and not having any regrets.”
Within the football world, Collins had a newfound reputation thanks to early reviews at Penn. Even though he hadn’t played a game yet, Collins received calls from several major programs. Iowa was the first Power 5 school to offer a scholarship, but Nebraska and Pitt also recruited him heavily.
Collins called on a former teammate for help. TCU tackle Lucas Niang played with Collins at New Canaan. When he heard his good friend was on the market, he connected Collins with the TCU coaches.
Academically, it’s hard to get much better than Wharton. The Collins family did plenty of research about TCU’s Neeley School of Business before transferring.
“We were really impressed with everyone we met from Neeley,” Rich Collins said. “Coach Patterson and Coach [Sonny] Cumbie did a nice job introducing us to all the right folks affiliated with Neeley. We were quite comfortable.”
Collins went on an official visit in January 2017. It didn’t take long for Collins and TCU offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie to hit it off, according to Marinelli. And it didn’t hurt him that Cumbie was also an underrecruited quarterback before he made his mark as a senior in 2004 at Texas Tech.
“I see a lot of similarities between the two of them,” Marinelli said.
There was only one issue. TCU was stacked at quarterback.
Kenny Hill was the starter at the time, and blue-chip DeSoto quarterback Shawn Robinson was set to arrive too. Elite 2018 Louisiana quarterback Justin Rogers was also in the midst of his recruitment. But Collins didn’t back away.
“You always want to compete against the best,” Collins said. “Shawn’s a great quarterback. Justin’s going to be a great quarterback and Grayson Muehlstein is a great quarterback. The competition is always going to make you better.”
Collins told Marinelli that he was prepared for what could come. If things went wrong, Collins would have given up a three-year starting job for a one-way ticket out of college football.
It didn’t matter. Collins was willing to do whatever it took to get his major college football shot.
Rebuilding in Fort Worth
Collins walked on at TCU last fall. If he could make it through the redshirt year, he would earn a scholarship in the spring. So last May, he packed his bags and went to Texas for the first time.
He played on the scout team while sitting out because of NCAA transfer rules. It gave him a chance to work with Cumbie and learn about Power 5 football. Plus, he ate more barbecue and Tex-Mex than he had ever seen in his life.
“I think it was good experience learning against Coach Patterson’s defense every day,” Collins said. “I think that really helped me grow and taught me a lot about defense and running different offenses.”
In limited opportunity, Collins has impressed the coaching staff. His arm and work ethic are proving valuable for the program.
“This is his first spring to learn anything,” Patterson said. “Like any new guy, he’s deep in alligators. But you know, he’s a lot more athletic than what people give him credit for.”
Now eligible, Collins has a difficult fight ahead for the starting quarterback job. Because of the redshirt season, he hasn’t played a snap of TCU football. Additionally, Collins is fighting for the position with Robinson, who was the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 class.
He make history with the Horned Frogs if he plays. No New Canaan quarterback has ever taken a snap in an FBS football game. Even if it’s as a backup, Collins should be the first.
Collins knows his talent. It was enough to help him develop into one of the most storied quarterbacks in Connecticut history.
That skill was enough to take a leap of faith and leave a sure thing in the Ivy League in search of more. And with some luck, it just might be enough to start for the Horned Frogs.
“I was just looking to chase my dream,” Collins said. “I really didn’t want to look back and wonder what if I had done this or that, so I went for it.
“I’m glad I did.”