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Nate Collins eager to display his ‘quicks’ as replacement for Henry Melton

Nate Collins has played 47 percent downs as part rotatidefensive tackle. “He’s becoming more consistent” DL coach Mike Phair said.

Nate Collins has played 47 percent of the downs as part of the rotation at defensive tackle. “He’s becoming more consistent,” DL coach Mike Phair said. | Getty Images

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Updated: October 30, 2013 6:34AM

Nate Collins was watching Kyle and Chris Long casually dunk a basketball at their summer retreat on Flathead Lake in Montana when he made a claim: He could, too.

The brothers made a bet. They’d film it.

If the 6-2, 296-pound Collins failed, Chris Long, the St. Louis Rams’ defensive end, would post the video on Twitter.

Shirtless and wearing red shorts this past July, Collins approached the rim, jumped — and missed.

“Gets thrown by the rim,” said Kyle Long, the Bears’ starting right guard.

“Rejected by the rim,” Collins said with a laugh.

The Bears’ defensive tackle has always been a bit undersized, at least by NFL standards. He played quarterback for half his senior year in high school; how many defensive tackles can say that? He’s an inch shorter than Henry Melton, who the Bears lost to a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee one week ago. When he makes his first career start Sunday in Detroit, Collins will become the second-lightest and second-shortest starting defensive tackle in the NFC North.

“I try to use it to my advantage, use my quicks,” Collins said. “You stay stout in there. If I keep my pads low, my size works to my advantage.”

‘Starting to understand’

Collins will seem even smaller Sunday compared to Melton’s Pro Bowl perception.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz said Melton had a “knack for slipping by blocks” and was “around on every single play” for the Bears.

This season, though, Collins had outplayed Melton. By a lot.

Through three games, Melton’s grade of -6.4 was the lowest of any defensive tackle in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins pressured the quarterback twice as often as Melton. PFF said Collins played the run better, too.

“He’s been in the system a little bit now,” defensive line coach Mike Phair said of Collins, who signed with the Bears before last season. “He’s starting to understand some things. He’s becoming more consistent — and he’s another guy who keeps working.”

Collins, who has played in 25 games over four seasons, has been a winning force this season. He has played 47 percent of downs as the third member of the defensive-tackle rotation.

“He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s strong,” said Stephen Paea, the division’s shortest defensive tackle, who is also thriving in a system that doesn’t stress size inside. “That’s what you need out of a defensive lineman.”

Kyle Long has seen it first-hand. He and Collins have been friends since Long’s older brother hosted Collins on a recruiting trip at the University of Virginia. Collins often popped over for dinner with Hall of Famer Howie Long, his wife and son Kyle at their Charlottesville, Va., home.

Collins and Chris Long, who became friends and college roommates, are close today. Before joining the Longs in Montana this summer for high-altitude training, Collins was a groomsman in Chris’ June wedding.

Kyle Long considers Collins “extended family” — off the field.

“I hate practicing against him,” Kyle Long said. “He makes practice a very long practice.”

An entrepreneur’s spirit

Collins had braces put on his teeth 10 months ago. The wires pop out when, despite wearing a facemask, he gets whacked in the face during practice. On bad weeks, he’ll visit his orthodontist three times.

“Sometimes,” he said, “O-linemen’s hands get in my face.”

Collins wears a special mouth guard, but he might consider designing a new one. It’s in his blood.

“He’s definitely an entrepreneur,” Kyle Long said.

Collins and Giants star wide receiver Victor Cruz own “Young Whales,” a line of T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts. The logo is a cartoon whale with a tuxedo, top hat, monocle and pocket watch — a play on high-stakes casino gambler.

As undrafted free agent rookies in 2010, he and Cruz — paired as roommates alphabetically — dreamed of launching a clothing line if they ever struck it rich. When the NFL lockout hit, they launched the company with a few thousand dollars apiece.

“All these people were making money,” he said. “We could definitely make our own.”

It wasn’t as easy as they first thought, but the company turns a profit.

Paea is still waiting for a freebie.

“If you’re his teammate, his partner in crime?” he said. “But still, though, I haven’t gotten anything.”

Thrilled to be starting

Collins will play an extra 10 or 20 more snaps Sunday than he did the week before. On the surface, it’s not a big deal.

“I’m not sure much changes, especially in his approach,” Kyle Long said.

Paea said Collins will simply be “doing the same thing that he’s been doing” all season.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for him to play more, and a lot of opportunities for him to make plays,” he said. “That’s what I’m excited about. I’m excited for him, man. There’s no other guy I’d rather see replace Henry. He busts his butt.”

Collins might feel a few twinges of excitement when he takes the field as a starter for the first time.

“I don’t think it will be any different — it’s a thrill for me all the time,” he said, smiling. “I’m not sure. I guess I’ll see.”

Collins wants to make one thing clear, though: After Chris Long put away his camera phone this July, he tried another dunk. It went in.

“I still got one down,” he said.


Twitter: @patrickfinley

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