The fullback fraternity is a small one in the NFL, and one that Jed Collins is proud to be a part of even if his bid to join came late in life.
Collins was a linebacker in high school and a receiving tight end in college with no hint of running back in his game when survival instincts necessitated a position change.
Passed over for the NFL combine, Collins showed up for his pro day workout at Washington State only to have scouts tell him there was no future for him at tight end.
“They said I was a little short and a little slow to play tight end at this level, and I said, ‘Well, what else is there?’ ” Collins said. “They said, ‘The fullback’s dying, but there’s a few of them left,’ so I went out for that.”
Six years later, Collins, 28, has found a home in the NFL’s nichiest niche.
He bounced around the practice squad of five teams over three seasons before the New Orleans Saints made him their full-time fullback in 2011, and now he is helping retrofit the Lions’ offense.
After phasing out the fullback the last few years under Jim Schwartz, the Lions are back in the business of using two-back sets under new coach Jim Caldwell.
They’ll keep a true fullback on their roster for the first time since 2010, and Collins, who played for new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi in New Orleans, is the leading candidate for the job.
Special-teams warrior Montell Owens, who can play both running back positions, and undrafted rookie Chad Abram also are in camp.
“This offense is a system of roles,” Collins said. “Obviously, you have your stars in Calvin (Johnson) and Matt (Stafford) and those guys, but the rest of us, we’ve got to kind of expand the weaponry and what I do is provide a lead back, assist in a lot of play-action things and help out the big guys up front when possible, coming in on short-yardage, goal-line situations.
“But more than that, we’ve got to be able to run the ball to control the game, control the clock and come snow and cold weather, you’ve got to be able to move the ball forward. So I think I’m going to be able to provide a certain mentality and a certain element that the fullback position brings.”
In Lombardi’s offense, the fullback is expected to be part blocker and part receiver, with an occasional run mixed in.
Collins does all that humbly, though his distinct look with long hair that flows out of the back of his helmet makes him impossible to miss on the field.
As a senior at Washington State, Collins caught 52 passes and was one of the most productive tight ends in the Pac-10. In the NFL, he has never had more than three carries in a game, and last year he set or tied career-highs with 15 rushes for 45 yards and 14 receptions.
“You start out in high school and you’re the star and you go to college and you work on being a big fish in a little pond and then you come to this level and everybody’s a star, everybody’s an elite talent,” Collins said. “It took me awhile to have confidence in who you are and yet being humbled in who you are. That is something that I think is a character trait that is underappreciated in this league is guys who know who they are and why they’re on teams. Once I figured out kind of who I was, I think it definitely played to an advantage for me.”
Collins played about 40% of the offensive snaps in New Orleans last year, the fifth most of any fullback in the league.
Judging by training camp, the Lions will use the position a similar amount this fall.
“It’ll probably depend from week to week on how much we use every personnel group and that won’t be the same, but I can see them playing a big part of what we do,” running backs coach Curtis Modkins said. “We like them to be versatile. They’ll catch balls out of the backfield, they’ll run block and they’ll pass protect. They’ll do it all.”
That is Collins’ mantra, and the reason he has made it in the NFL.
“It’s like the dinosaurs,” he said. “If we don’t adapt, we don’t survive.”