When you’re the son of an eight-year NFL receiver who made three Pro Bowls, caught more than 400 passes for nearly 7,000 yards and 36 touchdowns, and played in a Super Bowl, naturally you gravitate to the position that your father made famous.
“I honestly saw myself as a safety the whole time,” said Notre Dame senior Austin Collinsworth, who arrived at Notre Dame out of Fort Thomas, Ky., and was immediately placed with the receivers back in 2010.
“I kind of thought the move was inevitable. I think of myself as a team guy. I told them, ‘If you think I’m better off at receiver, I’ll play receiver.’ But I thought I’d eventually end up at safety, and I was happy that I did.”
Happy today, but a bit confused when the move to defense was made following his rookie season during which he established himself as a mainstay on the Irish special teams.
The confusion has cleared up. After missing the 2012 season following shoulder and then back surgery, the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder started 11 games for the Irish in 2013 and is once again projects as a starter on the back end of the Irish defense.
“I played a little safety in high school, but safety in high school and safety in college are light years different,” Collinsworth said.
“But spending the time in the film room, understanding the position and the nuances of it…Once you learn that, then you can step on the field and become comfortable and go make plays.”
It’s that understanding that has kept Collinsworth on the field ahead of more physically talented players such as hard-hitting Elijah Shumate and Eilar Hardy, and even five-star recruit Max Redfield in 2013 as Collinsworth and Matthias Farley logged most of the playing time.
Eventually, and once defensive coordinator Bob Diaco accepted the head-coaching position at Connecticut, Redfield moved into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers. But it was Farley, not Collinsworth, who was unseated from the starting lineup.
Now Farley is Notre Dame’s starting nickel and a recent addition back at the safety position after a move to cornerback in the spring.
“He’s an extremely versatile guy,” said Collinsworth of Farley. “He can play pretty much anywhere you put him. He picks it up quickly and he’s a good football player. They just want to make sure he can play as many spots as possible.”
Yet it was Collinsworth and Redfield who logged a majority of the first-team reps throughout the spring, and when the 2014 pre-season camp opened Monday on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee at the Culver (Ind.) Academies, the same duo was front and center.
Collinsworth says that Redfield is no longer a confused, uninformed young player on the back end of the defense.
“He corrects me sometimes, too,” Collinsworth said. “We work together and get it right. We really think of ourselves as a unit. If we’re not working together and clicking on all cylinders together, we’re not going to be a good defensive backfield.”
The fact that Collinsworth has become the heady one at safety is not much of a surprise when you consider that he grew up in a household with his father, Cris, a 6-foot-5, 195-pounder out of the University of Florida who went on to a brilliant career in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals.
With some experience under his belt, the younger Collinsworth has made a smooth transition from Bob Diaco’s to Brian VanGorder’s defense, even though VanGorder’s system is much more extensive and detailed than what Collinsworth had played under.
“The background definitely helped,” said Collinsworth of his adaptation to VanGorder’s system. “It’s definitely a new terminology and new language. Everything is different in that way, but it’s still safety. There are a couple things I had to change up and get used to but it wasn’t that hard.”
Asked to compare and contrast playing under both coordinators, Collinsworth sheepishly grins and says, “It’s more complicated. I’ll say it’s more complicated. Yeah, it is.”
Collinsworth doesn’t shy away from VanGorder’s boisterous coaching style.
“He’s an enthusiastic guy, a fun guy to be around,” Collinsworth said. “He lights up the room when he walks in. I think guys really respect him and want to play for him, which is a great thing to have.”
Collinsworth has earned the respect of the coaching staff with his unflappable approach. While remembered more for the 36-yard touchdown pass Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong scored over him last October, Collinsworth enters the 2014 season with a three-game interception streak with picks against BYU, Stanford and Rutgers.
It also was Collinsworth who applied the pressure on Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner early in the fourth quarter that led to Stephon Tuitt’s interception for a touchdown that temporarily sparked a rally. Only two Irish defenders had more quarterback hurries than Collinsworth’s three in 2013 -- defensive end Stephon Tuitt and outside linebacker Prince Shembo.
Now it’s up to Collinsworth, Redfield and several others capable of making strong contributions at safety to help lead a defense that will need some help with an unproven defensive front. Collinsworth is confident he can conclude his Notre Dame career on a high note.
“I can go out there and take some chances on balls I couldn’t in the past because I just didn’t understand it,” Collinsworth said. “There’s nothing holding me back. That’s where I feel I am right now.”