by: Christopher Price on Thu, 05/02/2013 - 11:30pm

For the last couple of years, the Patriots have searched for a linebacker who could work in coverage. Last season, the New England pass defense was gashed on several occasions by tight ends and running backs -- according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Patriots yielded 176 receptions to tight ends and running backs (sixth most in the league) and 1,767 receiving yards to running backs and tight ends (most in the league). A quick rewatch of the AFC title game reveals that while the injury to cornerback Aqib Talib affected New England’s pass defense, it’s clear New England struggled to defend the middle of the field against the Ravens passing game all afternoon.

While Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes all have made gains in their pass defense over the last year-plus (Spikes, rather remarkably, finished last season with seven passes defensed), New England could use a bigger defender who can run with tight ends, running backs and (occasionally) wide receivers, and spend time working in coverage and in space, specifically on passing downs.

After spending time talking with Jamie Collins’ high school and college coaches, it’s clear that if everything falls into place for the rookie -- who was taken in the second round of the draft last week by New England with the 52nd overall pick -- he can be that guy.

“When it comes to pass coverage, there’s no doubt in my mind he can match up with anyone,” said David Duggan, who worked as the linebackers coach and later became defensive coordinator at Southern Miss from 2008-11.

Collins had a fascinating evolution as a college defender. He started as a freshman defensive back, and as a sophomore safety he picked off two passes and broke up two others. He used those coverage skills when he transitioned to linebacker the following year, when he had eight pass breakups as a junior. As a senior, he was utilized more as a defensive end, and ultimately, while Collins made a rep as a pass rusher -- he had 16.5 sacks over his last two seasons as a collegian -- the coverage skills he utilized his first two seasons at Southern Miss working in coverage could get him on the field faster when he arrives in the NFL.

“I’ve seen him cover running backs and tight ends and wide receivers in the slot,” Duggan said of Collins, who 18 passes defensed and three picks (two returned for touchdowns) over the course of his career at USM. “He understands pass coverage assignments, and he’s so strong that when he gets his hands on you, you aren’t moving. But he also has really good speed and good bend, and he can cover with the best of them. Tight ends, he can match up with them. He’s really fast and really athletic and really strong.

“I think that when he gets to the NFL, he’ll be able to match up with the tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Heck, he spent a lot of time matched up on wide receivers when he was here at Southern Miss.”

Duggan, a longtime Patriots fan, is thrilled Collins will be headed to Foxboro -- a New England native who played at New Hampshire and coached at New Hampshire, Brown and New Hampshire, he was the one who recruited Collins to Southern Miss, and stayed close with him throughout his college career. As a result, he knows coach Trent Hammond, and it’s clear both of them have the same impression of Collins: a versatile, physical freak who can do a lot of different things on the football field.

“Jamie has a lot of versatility,” Duggan said of the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder. “We had him inside, outside, at multiple spots, and you have to be very smart to be able to play multiple spots at a high level like Jaime did in college.”

Collins’ versatility has already been pretty well documented, but it’s still remarkable that while at Southern Miss, he not only started as a true freshman, he also started at four different positions in his four years as a collegian.

“When he showed up, I know the plan was to make him a linebacker, but we kind of eased him into it,” Duggan said. “He started as an outside linebacker and safety, and he played there as a true freshman. Then, as a sophomore, we moved him to ‘will’ linebacker, and then, his third year, he moved to a hybrid spot at end -- almost a Clay Matthews-type where he could rush and drop. And then, this past year, I didn’t coach him, but they had him with his hand on the ground most of the time.

“When you’re talking about Jamie, it’s important to remember the Patriots are getting a guy who has never played more than a single season at one position,” he added. “This is a kid with HUGE upside. He’s got great strength, he’s fast, he’s explosive and he’s long. He’s got great range and a really good football IQ. This guy is the whole package.”

Duggan also addressed the idea that Collins’ takes plays off.

“Larry Fedora, who coached here at USM for four years (from 2008 through 2011) used to get on me and say ‘Jamie isn’t playing hard,’” Duggan recalled. “I came back at him with the same replay every time: ‘Larry, he’s winning every drill. He’s always making plays. Always. He’s just a smooth athlete. He’s getting to the quarterback. He’s making the tackles and making plays. It just looks like he’s coasting.’”

Regardless of his coverage skills, Collins enters a crowded picture at linebacker/defensive end. It’s likely the combination of Spikes, Hightower and Mayo will get the bulk of the reps, while Dane Fletcher (who was on the shelf all last season because of a knee injury) will figure into the mix as well. In a perfect world, if Collins’ coverage skills are NFL ready, he’d starts as a third-down option and work his way into the lineup at that point. It also stands to reason he’d get a sizable portion of reps on special teams.

But he’ll face all the challenges that are presented to your average NFL rookie -- the pace of the game, getting acclimated to new teammates and adjusting to life off the field can be crazy enough to deal with. The bottom line is that Collins will likely have a lot on his plate in the coming months, which includes his first real taste of life in the NFL when he suits up as part of rookie minicamp this weekend in Foxboro.

While it remains to be seen how much impact he’ll have as a rookie, Duggan is convinced that the Patriots found the right guy.

“He’s a great guy. I’m just really excited for him to get with coach Belichick,” Duggan said. “He’s such a great athlete and so competitive. He’s tough, he’s durable, and I believe he’s going to get better and better every day. I texted him after he was drafted, and said, ‘You’re going to God’s country -- you’re in good hands.’”