When the Darien football team opened practice in August, coach Rob Trifone had several certainties. The play of both lines would be a strength. Another was Finlay Collins, the outside linebacker who was one of the few returning starters.
That Collins would become one of the state’s best two-way players has exceeded even Trifone’s loftiest hopes.
With the Blue Wave ready to play Ridgefield on Saturday for a second straight Class LL title and No. 1 ranking in the state, Trifone was asked at the football media day on Tuesday whether he thought Collins would emerge not only as one of his best defenders, but also a focal point of the offense.
“No, and that’s not taking anything away from my expectations of him,” Trifone said. “But to be so dynamic on both sides of the ball takes a very special type of athlete, a very special type of kid. He’s just been able to do it all.”
Collins has proved to be one of those rare athletes who with repeated work tempts coaches into greater use. That Collins leads the top-seeded Blue Wave (12-0) in tackles is hardly a surprise. More so is that Collins, with an increased work load at running back, leads the team in carries, is second in rushing yards, fourth in receptions and tied for first in touchdowns.
“He came on in the playoffs last year to the point you said this kid’s an All-State linebacker coming back,” Trifone said. “Although I knew he was talented we didn’t really know what was going to happen offensively.”
Like his team, Collins is peaking at the end of the season, as the games have grown more important. He scored twice and memorably had the game-clinching interception in Darien’s 37-34 Turkey Bowl overtime win against New Canaan. Collins has followed that up by scoring twice in each of the team’s state playoff wins, against Greenwich and in Monday’s 38-7 semifinal victory over unbeaten Southington.
Collins’ reaction to his performance has been as predictable as his play: confident in his ability but selfless when putting it into context.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my teammates,” Collins said. “None of my individual success would be possible without them. Given the team we have around me it allows me to make plays. Any other team I don’t think it would be the same way. This team is really special and puts me in a great position to do my job as much as I can.”
Collins’ play on defense has been instinctive. Carrying the ball has been a matter of getting better with greater use.
“It took me a while to adjust to read the line and know where the holes are going to be,” Collins said. “I’ve gotten to that point and I feel a lot more comfortable in our offense.”
Perhaps Collins’ innate ability was best evidenced on a run against Southington that went for just 11 yards. But with little room to maneuver, he managed to put three defenders on the ground with a pair of twisting moves.
“This year it has just been preparation,” Collins said. “Everything just comes together when you’re out there on the field, playing alongside all your best friends. I try to take on a different mindset on defense. Go as hard as you can.”
Darien has been fortunate to have the depth to use many players on just one side of the ball. Mitch Pryor has done well as the primary running back, but he has been playing nicked up and Collins has flourished getting more carries.
“It’s nice to be involved in the game in all facets,” Collins said. “It is awesome to be able to contribute on both sides of the ball and have an impact. We have a lot of two-way players who take a lot of pride playing on both sides of the ball.”
Because the Blue Wave were hit hard by graduation after finishing No. 1 in the state a year ago, this year’s group has been motivated to replicate that achievement. They are on the precipice, but will have to get by Ridgefield, which has been surging and came from behind in both its postseason wins. The teams did not meet during the regular season.
“It’s interesting that last year there were a lot of returning stars and this year not so much maybe,” Collins said. “The entire team has stepped up. We’ve united as a group and that’s the most fun part. We’re really excited for this matchup. We played them a little bit in the passing league. They’re a great team and we’re excited for Saturday.”