Mike Collins impressed in limited action, doing more than enough to be named our 2020 Rice Football Offensive Player of the Year.
Rice football did a lot of things well in the first two years under head coach Mike Bloomgren. Consistency at the quarterback position remained squarely on the “work in progress” side of the ledger. The Owls had gone through at least three quarterbacks in each season with no sure-fire answer heading into their 2020 campaign. Enter Mike Collins.
When he arrived on campus, Collins was a relative unknown. A grad transfer from TCU who played his high school ball in Connecticut, Collins was the Owls’ third graduate transfer at the position in three years under Bloomgren. His resume included a couple of Big 12 games and coaches were hopeful.
Collins tracked a step to two ahead of redshirt freshmen JoVoni Johnson through a shortened spring and delayed fall camp. He looked the part. Then, shortly after a day of practice in which he threw zero incompletions all afternoon, he was named the starter. There was a guarded optimism when the season began in earnest in late October against Middle Tennessee. Still, no one was certain what would happen when he took the field for the first time.
Mike Collins completed two of his first 10 passes in a Rice uniform. He threw his only interception as the Owls fell behind 7-6 early in their season opener. Then he settled down and transformed into the passer the coaching staff saw throughout camp. He led the Owls back from a fourth-quarter deficit, delivering a key fourth-down conversion and the go-ahead touchdown pass with seconds remaining.
When the dust settled, Collins had thrown for 242 yards and four touchdowns in his Rice debut. That marked the first time a Rice quarterback had thrown four touchdown passes in a game since Tyler Stehling did so against Prairie View in 2016. It was the first time any Owl had four touchdown passes in a season opener since Chase Clement threw six against SMU in 2008.
The heartbreaking loss was tough to swallow. Still, Collins displayed tremendous resolve when he returned to the field for practice the next week. “There’s so much that we can improve on, especially personally that I can improve on,” he said before his second start, a road game against Southern Miss.
Already in the company of some of the better Rice quarterbacks of the modern era, Collins didn’t slow down. He was spectacular against Southern Miss, completing 12-of-17 passes for 233 yards and another four touchdown passes.
His 10 passing touchdowns in three games were the most in the first three Conference USA games of any quarterback in school history. He was efficient, leading the offense to 30+ points in two of his three appearances, a scoring total the Owls had only reached twice in their previous 25 games. His final outing came on the road against North Texas. Rice would lose, but Collins would throw for 300 yards for his first time as an Owl.
Even with the 1-2 start, everything seemed to be looking up for the Owls, particularly on offense. Then Collins did not return to the field. An undisclosed injury forced Rice to finish the 2020 campaign without their breakthrough star signal caller. JoVoni Johnson would come off the bench an defeat No. 15 Marshall on the road, but the offense never clicked the same way it did when Collins and senior receiver Austin Trammell were both healthy.
No matter where Collins goes from here, his impact on Rice football was significant. He delivered a blueprint for this offense, one that’s had its share of highs and lows. He proved the ceiling for this passing attack is higher than it had been in previous years. That with the right skill set and understanding, a potent offensive attack was possible within this scheme.
Where the Owls turn now, or rather to whom, will forever be seen through the lens of Collins’ accomplishments. Should he chose to do so, Collins would be eligible to return to Rice for the 2021 season. Further clarity on the Owls’ senior class will develop in the coming weeks. No matter what happens next, his three-game 2020 stint will be revered.
Collins ends 2020 as one of two quarterbacks in the nation to throw for 10 touchdowns with one or fewer interceptions. That’s not bad company for an offense that prides itself on pounding the rock.