'Taco Meat' thumps way to top of depth chart

Two things stand out about Will Thomas Collins, Kentucky’s starting junior fullback throughout fall camp.

One: He earns consistent praise from his position coach, Vince Marrow, who lovingly refers to him as a “thumper”.

Two: His nickname is “Taco Meat”.

BRUISER

A native of Jackson, Ky., Collins – who opened his career at NAIA Pikeville College in 2012 – has gone from scout-team, walk-on linebacker to UK’s starting fullback.

When he takes the field on Saturday for Kentucky’s season opener at 7 p.m. in The New Commonwealth Stadium it will fulfill a lifelong dream.

“When people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say a Kentucky football player. Not an NFL player but a Kentucky football player,” Collins said. “When I run out of that tunnel on Saturday, I can’t even tell you what it’s going to be like.”

Collins earned a spot on the roster after impressing a former star player of his father’s, UK offensive line coach John Schlarman.

During the 2013 season, Collins redshirted and served as a scout-team linebacker, before transitioning to fullback last year.

The Wildcats have traditionally sported talented fullback options, including recently departed senior D.J. Warren and most notably NFL veteran John Conner.

Despite UK utilizing a spread offensive attack, the role of the fullback and tight end is crucial for Marrow and coordinator Shannon Dawson.

“When you think of fullbacks, you want that throw-back type guy,” Marrow said. “They have to be thumpers, and he doesn’t shy away from that. Some dudes play fullback and I don’t know if they want to thump. He is a throw-back fullback.”

What Collins brings to the offensive attack is clear. A blue-collar product of Breathitt County High School, he packs a punch.

“When I was little, I used to tell people I like playing football because I could hit people and get away with it,” Collins said.

Kentucky will also start a fresh face at tight end, with freshman C.J. Conrad earning the first spot on the depth chart, and redshirt freshman Daryl Long also showing an ability to impact the UK offense.

“When I first got to Kentucky, I had always watched (the players) on TV and in the stadium, so to me they were these bigger than human guys,” Collins said. “I get out there the first day wondering if I could belong here. Playing linebacker that first year, I found myself hitting offensive lineman, and that helped my physicality and my confidence because it allowed me to understand that these guys are big and they are good but if you just grit your teeth and go after it you can play with them.”

It was an encounter on the defensive scout team in 2014 that helped Collins understand that he can compete – and thrive – at this level.

While hustling to fill a gap on a running play, Collins found himself up against guard Jack Gruenschlaeger, the tallest player to ever wear a UK football uniform.

“They ran an inside run play,” Collins said. “Jack, who is 7 feet tall and 380 pounds, pulls up in the hole and I saw him coming. I knew my job was to fill that hole so I filled it as hard as I could. When I hit him, I actually stopped him for a moment, then he went ahead and pushed me on over, but when I hit him I stopped him. That was one moment when I realized that if I can stop someone that big, I can stop anyone.”

TACO MEAT

Collins earned his legendary nickname after his uncle relayed a story about his ability to down Mexican food in one sitting to Marrow during a fundraiser.

“Last summer, I got done with a workout and went home to my uncle’s house,” Collins detailed. “He had made about two pounds of taco meat and put it in the fridge. I was starving, and looked in the fridge and saw this taco meat and thought ‘Alright’. So I took it out, microwaved it, put some cheese and taco sauce on it, and ate it with chips. He came home, I was watching TV and he said, ‘Where is all my taco meat at?’ And I said, ‘Well, I ate all your taco meat’. He said ‘That was for supper; it was for the whole family.’

“You know how coach Marrow is, he talks with some bass in his voice, so when he hollers that name out at practice, people hear it,” Collins said. “Then they ask, ‘Who is ‘taco meat’?”

INTERCHANGEABLE PARTS

Marrow, UK’s dynamo recruiting coordinator, is in his second season working with the fullbacks after adding the position to his duties with the tight ends.

“Fullback, you really don’t get a lot of praise for it, but what people don’t understand is the fullback is the key to the running game because they have to pick those holes and get back to the linebackers and D-ends,” Marrow said.

By adding the fullbacks to the tight-end coaching room, it has allowed Kentucky to cross train several players in the H-back, hybrid role.

“We want them to be interchangeable parts,” Marrow said. “Instead of fullbacks being in the running back room, we are all interchangeable, so they hear the same language that I am telling the tight ends and the tight ends hear the same language that I am telling the fullbacks. In that room, I have six guys, (Tanner) Fink, Taco Meat, Darryl, C.J. and the big boy (Jacob Hyde). They hear the same language and they know what we are all thinking.”

Collins, walk-on linebacker turned bruising fullback, is poised to be the unknown player of the preseason that emerges as a key contributor for a potentially dangerous offense.

“I have awesome teammates and coaches,” Collins said. “Obviously I am not on scholarship, but when it comes to everything else, I have coaches, staff and teammates that treat you like you are everyone else. I’d walk-on at Kentucky vs. playing on scholarship anywhere.”