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Zaven Collins Expected To Start, But Don't Tell Him That

Kingsbury says rookie should pair with Simmons at linebacker Week 1

Linebacker Zaven Collins directs the defense during his first rookie minicamp practice on Friday.
Linebacker Zaven Collins directs the defense during his first rookie minicamp practice on Friday.

Zaven Collins is going to be starting at inside linebacker for the Cardinals when the regular season begins in September.

Just don't expect the first-round pick to acknowledge it. Not yet.

"I'm just going out every day, just working and trying to make that role, trying to earn it," Collins said. "Nothing's given, you've got to earn everything. Every snap, every day, every install that we have."

While Collins might want to downplay his future, Kliff Kingsbury did not. After the Cardinals finished their first rookie minicamp practice Friday, the Cardinals' coach was asked if was fair to say the expectation Week 1 against the Titans was that Isaiah Simmons and Collins would be the starting inside linebacker duo. Kingsbury was succinct.

"That is," he said.

"We know there will be growing pains, two guys getting indoctrinated to the league," Kingsbury later added. "But they are athletic enough to make up for some of the experience they don't have, and we're excited to grow with them and see what they can become together."

The news had already leaked earlier in the week that the Cardinals had given veteran Jordan Hicks – the incumbent starting Mike linebacker, the spot Collins would be playing – permission to seek a trade. Kingsbury was a little less forthcoming when asked about that.

"I'm going to keep the conversations between Jordan and I private out of respect for him," Kingsbury said. "He knows how we feel about him. One of the most respected players on our team and has been a great leader here. Just kind of leave it at that."

With a pandemic-shrunken 27 players on hand for rookie minicamp, there is only so much work that can be done in a full-speed team sense. But Collins was already spending a lot of time in walkthroughs Friday, barking out signals to his teammates and lining them up in pre-snap work.

That's something Simmons never got last year when everything was virtual because of COVID, a loss of learning that eventually cost Simmons a chance at much playing time until deep into the season.

"Doing this all virtual, I'm telling you guys, it'd be rough," Collins said. "I'm just being honest. It's so much more helpful for guys coming in to be hands-on, especially through walkthroughs and stuff like that. It helps you grasp the knowledge. Doing it all the way at home in your kitchen, that'd be tough."

Playing the Mike linebacker will be more complicated for Collins in terms of the learning curve. That's why it was crucial watching Collins get play-by-play instruction from linebackers coach Bill Davis and then being able to institute it immediately on the field.

Once games start, and even when the mandatory minicamp will insert Collins among a bunch of veterans for 11-on-11 work, there will be another step to take. But this is a start for a guy ostensibly taking over for a brainiac like Hicks.

"We will walk through a ton of plays," Kingsbury said. "Just the communication aspect, being able to recognize formations, getting the proper defense called, the more reps you get the easier it becomes. It was the same thing when we drafted Kyler (Murray). We had a ton of walkthroughs. You can only do so many team reps full speed. The walkthroughs, we'll try to max out there."

GM Steve Keim called the idea of having Simmons and Collins on the field together akin to having two huge trees clogging the middle of passing lanes, to which Kingsbury added Friday, "two really fast trees."

Collins admitted he isn't as fast as Simmons but he can hold his own. He chuckled when his weight from the NFL combine – heavy at 270 – was broached, noting that "everyone freaked out for about three hours" but that he is now within his optimal range of 255-263.

The physical part isn't the concern. It's the mental. Collins insists there is no way to measure how much time he'll put into that, only that he'll "study all day every day until you know it like the back of your hand, and then maybe you get an hour break."

He hopes to be in a better spot when the veterans arrive, and he meets Hicks – "a hell of a dude and a hell of a player" – for the first time.

"Whether you're starting or not, you've got to come into this league and come into this program working your tail off," Collins said. "Whether you are a starter or at the bottom it doesn't matter. You have to go in every day trying to earn your spot and for me, I don't know where my spot is right now."

He might be the only one.

"They'll win the prettiest linebacker duo award when they line up side-by-side," Kingsbury said of Collins and Simmons. "Those are two big, long, athletic cats."