Jake Collins has proven to be more than just an on-field specialist for WKU

Redshirt junior punter Jake Collins kneels on the sidelines during WKU’s 20-7 loss to Illinois on Sept. 9.

Evan Heichelbech


Three falls ago, Jake Collins was a high school placekicker just looking for a chance to kick at the next level.

Two falls ago, he was a redshirt player who didn’t even go through fall camp.

This fall, Collins is one of WKU’s most important players, and he’s doing it from a position that often has a minimal to average impact on the actual game.

Collins is a punter. His job is to switch the field position in favor of the Hilltoppers as best he can. But, if his team were playing as best as it possibly could, Collins would never even step foot on the field.

So how can someone with such an inverse relationship to his team’s success be so crucial to every win he and the Hilltoppers collect this season?

His head coach said it best, and he fit it all into one breath.

“Jake Collins might be one of our better leaders on the team, and he’s played at an exceptional level,” WKU head coach Mike Sanford said.

Coming out of Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, Collins was a placekicker willing to do anything to keep playing football. After having contact with both University of Louisville and Kentucky, Collins had offers from Centre College and Morehead State heading into the last month of the spring 2014 recruiting period before signing day.

“I was getting recruited by a few other schools but coach [Greg] Nord who is now the special teams coordinator at Florida came to St. X one day and hooked me,” Collins said. “The next week I was down here on my visit, and it doesn’t take much to fall in love with this place. I knew I wanted to be here.”

Nord served as the running backs coach under Jeff Brohm at WKU in 2014, and if it wasn’t for a family relationship (Nord’s nephew played at St. X with Collins), Collins might have never gotten a preferred walk-on opportunity at WKU.

“So [Nord] was at all the games, and he said he liked what he saw. I just kept emailing coach Brohm, and I knew this was a place I could really excel,” Collins said.

While Collins’ journey to get to the Hill was engineered in part by chance, his starting spot today is all traceable to his character.

After redshirting in 2014 as a preferred walk-on who didn’t go through fall camp, Collins said he still viewed himself mainly as a kicker and was kicking field goals, practicing kickoffs and punting in practice during his freshman season.

“Then the next camp we installed the rugby punt,” Collins said. “I was still doing all three: kicking field goals behind [Garret] Schwettman and competing with kickoffs with [Ryan] Nuss that second year, and I was also punting. And when they installed the rugby punt, [the coaches] asked, ‘Do you think you all can do it?’ and I was like, ‘Yes, yes, yes. Give me the opportunity.’ And I ran away with it and tried to perfect it as much as I could. Since then it’s kind of taken off.”

Ever since the installation of the unconventional rugby punt, Collins installed his presence into games as well, serving as the team’s primary punter for 11 of the 14 games and earned All-Conference USA Freshman Team en route to WKU’s 2015 Conference USA Championship run.

Collins finished his first active season with a 41.7-yard average, tying for sixth in school history for yards-per-punt average. He also served as the team’s placeholder on field goals.

“I just grabbed an opportunity and got on the field any way I could,” Collins said of his runaway success. “I started holding that year too. Garret [Schwettman] said he wanted to get me in there instead of [Brandon] Doughty so he could get some work in during practice.”

A year later, Collins continued his success and found himself on the Ray Guy Award Watch List, an award for the nation’s best punter, for the second time heading into the season. After claiming the third-best single-season mark in school history with an increased 42.7 yard-per-punt average and booting a career-long 60-yarder at Florida Atlantic, Collins earned 2016 All Conference USA Second Team and 2016 CampusInsiders.com All-Sophomore All-American Team honors.

But even beyond the perfection of his on-field craft, Collins’ unique value to his team is further illustrated by his presence in the locker room.

“Jake’s a guy that wants to do whatever it takes on the field and also wants to have the team’s back,” redshirt junior kicker Ryan Nuss said. “That’s the type of person he is on and off the field, and he will literally help you with anything. It’s good to have a teammate like that, and he’ll be a friend for a very long time.”

Nuss started his career at WKU at the same time as Collins, and before winning the starting kicker job prior to the start of this season, he was in constant competition with other placekickers, including Collins himself.

“There was a time there where we were competing each day and … every competition breeds success for everybody,” Nuss said about competing with Collins early on. “Him being the punter now, he knows that if I’m doing something wrong with kicking, he can be like, ‘Hey, your plant foot is not up enough, or you need to get the ball up a little bit more.’ He’s just a leader on the field and off the field as well.”

Looked upon now as a veteran upperclassman, Collins has been one of the steadying hands for WKU in the transition from the Brohm era to Sanford and his staff.

Brohm, an alumnus of Collin’s St. Xavier arch-rival Trinity High School, is the coach Collins credits for allowing him to arrive where he is today.

“I had a really good relationship with him,” he said of Brohm. “We always went back and forth with St. X and Trinity just about every day, and I mean I love him a lot. I know he put a lot of faith in me and trust in me. I can’t pay him back enough for that. He gave me my opportunity, and I’ll be grateful for that forever.”

Collins earned another Ray Guy Award Watch List tab this preseason and has been more active — and thus more important — this season for the Hilltoppers than ever before. Through five games, Collins has already punted 26 times including six critical punts for an average of 52 yards and a touchback in last week’s 15-14 win over Texas-El Paso.

“My goal is for Jake to not have to play so much,” Sanford said with a smile. “That’s my job offensively for us to keep Jake over there as the number one leader and cheerleader, inactive except for on PAT’s and field goals.”

Collins is graduating with a degree in exercise science in the spring and plans to enter into WKU’s MBA program while he plays out his last year of eligibility in 2018. As for any future kicking plans, he calls it “a dream” but said that if professional goals don’t work out, he will be “grateful” for his time on the Hill.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is just to be available and any opportunity that comes up, just jump on it.”

Sports Editor Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 502-415-1817 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.