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Ready Or Not, Zaven Collins' Time Is Coming

Rookie middle linebacker attempting to learn defense quickly

LB Zaven Collins works in a drill during minicamp 2021
LB Zaven Collins during offseason work.

There were moments this offseason when Zaven Collins' head spun so much, he could have starred in 'The Exorcist.'

Not only is the Cardinals' first-round pick a rookie, but he's also being tasked with captaining the defense as the middle linebacker, and the learning curve was steep as a cliff face.

"I've made a ton of mistakes in this rookie camp," Collins said. "I've been in the complete wrong defense before and my head spins off. Coach (Vance Joseph), he always just tells me to remain calm. You know you're going to mess up, but just make sure you've got everyone on the same page and fly around and go 100 percent."

While most rookies have the benefit of time to iron out wrinkles, Collins has no such luxury.

From the moment he was drafted, Collins was anointed a starter, which means he must be prepared for a major role by the Sept. 12 season opener against the Titans.

"I am (ready), but there's no choice," Collins said. "Whether you're ready or not, you've got to be there. They expect a lot of me here, and I put a lot into it. I do what is asked of me and I try to do the best I can. That's something I work toward every day – knowing the defense, being able to call the defense, being able to get everyone in the right position and know how this thing works."

Joseph, the team's defensive coordinator, is aware Collins – and second-year inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons – could struggle mentally this season.

It's why he has chosen to simplify the playbook after seeing a similar approach work with young linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis when he was defensive backs coach in San Francisco.

"As a coach, you have to understand there are going to be some bad downs," Joseph said. "But on the flip-side, there will be plays those guys make that other guys can't make. It's our job as a staff, mine especially, to put players first and scheme second. Let those guys unlock those bodies."

In a press conference on Wednesday, Collins rattled off some of the myriad duties he must master over the next few months. There are standard play-calls, audibles, alerts, knowing down-and-distance, two-minute situations and how to effectively get everyone lined up and on the same page.

But when asked if the responsibility weighed on him, Collins shook his head vigorously and smiled.

"It's a lot of pressure, and I love it," Collins said. "It's a good thing. It means people expect a lot out of you. Being a high draft pick, people expect that. It comes with it. You can't be a high draft pick and then not do anything. It's something I really look forward to, and if I mess up, I mess up."

Even though Collins has a lot on his plate, he's making sure to keep some work-life balance. He recently attended a Suns playoff game and reveled at the atmosphere inside the arena.

When asked about the team's run, he excitedly yelled 'Suns in four!' in reference to the viral prediction of a Phoenix fan who had just won a fight against a Nuggets supporter.

Collins has also been getting to know the Cardinals' veteran players – for better or worse.

He was recently admonished on social media by J.J. Watt for not bringing him breakfast, and quarterback Kyler Murray chimed in with a punishment suggestion.

A few hours later, a video of Collins rolling down the fairway during he and Watt's round of golf made its way to Twitter.

"I had to pay the price," Collins said. "I realized what I had done and I was like, 'Man.' But I think a little bit of it had to do with beating him in golf that day. It was the 18th hole and I think I had him by a couple strokes. That's when he said, 'You've got to roll.'"

Joseph is happy to see that Collins is fitting in well with his teammates, both off the field and on it.

"Trust is earned," Joseph said. "I think with Zaven's work ethic and his honesty, the veterans are watching this guy work. And when he's wrong, he admits it instantly. Veteran players like that. They want you to be honest and work hard, and they will follow him as far as him being a MIKE 'backer."

The offseason for a rookie is always jam-packed, from draft preparation to the event itself and then a long period with their new team.

A brief respite is coming soon, as Collins will head back to Tulsa before the start of training camp, but it won't be Mojitos every day by the pool.

Collins plans to stick to a regiment that will have his head on straight as the regular season beckons.

"I know things are going to be very quick and fast-paced when we come back here in July, so I'm going to get my body ready for that, my mind ready for that and get ready to rock and roll," Collins said.

Images from minicamp as the team wraps up offseason work.

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