Senior captain Austin Collinsworth.

Irish Extra: Collinsworth Return Proves Bittersweet

Nov. 16, 2014

When Austin Collinsworth crossed the goal line after scooping up a fumble forced by Cody Riggs and sprinting 32 yards to pay dirt, the University of Notre Dame safety never got a chance to put up his dukes as part of a Fighting Irish leprechaun pose.

“I hit it with the heel click,” Collinsworth said. “I got my leprechaun on. I was going to do the pose, but my teammates messed me up. You have to blame them for that one.”

Collinsworth, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound Irish captain, definitely will have his dukes up for the final three games of Notre Dame’s season.

Notre Dame (7-3) will honor its seniors, including Collinsworth, in its home finale next Saturday against Louisville. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. The Irish close out the regular season at USC on Nov. 29 and then await a bowl game.

Collinsworth, as a senior leader, will be putting the fight in the Fighting Irish as they look to finish strong.

“The guys on this team are unbelievable competitors. …. These guys will fight to the end,” Collinsworth said on how the Irish will respond. “They’re dogs. I love them to death. It’s a great, great football team.”

Although Notre Dame suffered a 43-40 overtime loss to Northwestern Saturday, it signaled the return of Collinsworth to the Irish secondary after missing three previous games due to injury. He made an immediate impact, slugging Northwestern for the scoop-and-score on his second play of the game.

“When I saw the ball on the ground, it was like a gift from God, like he had just placed it there,” Collinsworth laughed about the fumble return, his first collegiate defensive score. “I took a second to thank God, and then I picked it up. It was awesome. It was just such a great personal moment on an overall bad day.”

Collinsworth has carved out a legacy as a fierce competitor who has forged a steely demeanor and effective leadership skills. He persevered through a back injury and then a shoulder injury that cost him the 2012 season. This season, Collinsworth suffered a knee injury before the season opener and missed out on the first four games of the season. In the sixth game of the season, Collinsworth suffered a shoulder injury.

“Having to sit out the whole season, and then getting an opportunity to just go out and play with my guys, it was a special moment,” Collinsworth said about putting a gold helmet back on. “It was a special moment running back out there. It’s a shame it had to end like this, but it was definitely a joy to be back on the field.”

Despite the injuries, Collinsworth refused to feel sorry for himself. He still made an impact for the Irish, turning into a de facto coach.

“Once Austin was on the sideline, he was running film sessions and doing as much as he could help everybody else work on their mental game,” Irish linebacker James Onwaulu said. “Austin is the kind of guy who you can always lean on. He’s always playing for everybody else. He’s one of the greatest captains I’ve been around. He has great leadership skills and really cares about everybody he plays with.”

Onwaulu said when he switched from offense to defense, Collinsworth made it a point to seek him out and help him with the transition.

“Austin’s a smart kid,” Onwaulu said. “He helped me a lot. I transferred to defense this year, and he’s one of the guys who stepped up and helped me start learning the game.

“The other great thing about him is he’s extremely personable. If you’re at the lowest of the low, he knows how to make you feel better. He knows how to motivate people. He’s a great leader. That’s what it comes down to. That’s why he’s one of our captains.”

Known for combining an intellectual approach to the game with punishing physical play, Collinsworth said he developed into even more of a student of the game because of being sidelined.

“I really took that approach after I injured my shoulder and my back,” Collinsworth said of studying the game. “All I could do was watch tape. I sat in the film room and watched film for an hour a day, and that’s when it really changed for me.

“When I was injured, I had to take on a little bit more of a coaches’ role. I had to learn both the safeties’ spots and go and watch tape with those guys every day and coach them up. It’s not exactly the fun work, but it’s the work you have to do as a leader. It’s something I took personally, and I wanted those guys to play well. I did everything I could to help this football team win when I was hurt. Now I’m back out there, and I can do a lot more. Hopefully we can finish this season out with three wins.”

Collinsworth impressed his teammates by the way he differentiated his instruction. He dealt with broad concepts with certain players, and with others he honed in on next-level details to help the Irish secondary play grand-theft football.

“Austin really helped us out in areas where we needed to be helped,” said Cole Luke, who has four interceptions this season. “Austin is a great guy. He’s very vocal, and he’s an action leader. He does all the things he says he’s going to do. He’s there with us every step of the way, whether he’s hurt or whether he’s out on the field with us. His leadership is phenomenal. He was a like a coach for us when he was hurt, and he really helped us.”

Although he excelled at coaching, Collinsworth isn’t sure the profession is in his future.

“It was an interesting experience, getting to put the mic on and listening to what the coaches say back and forth, coaching from that perspective … it was definitely an enlightening experience, but I’m going to take a little bit of time away from football when I’m done with this and reset my life,” Collinsworth said. “If I want to go back into it, so be it, but I definitely want to take a little bit of a break.”

Still, Collinsworth has the mature insights of a coach when he focuses on the Irish approach and the tone he hopes to set as a leader for the final three games of the Irish season.

“You still have to play loose,” Collinsworth said. “We need to turn up the intensity. Obviously, we can’t allow 40 points to get put up against us. You can’t tolerate that as a defense. But in this football game, there is so much pressure on these guys at this level, and they’re just kids. They’re 18-to-22-year-old kids. You still have to make it fun for them. It still has to be fun. It still has to be an enjoyable experience. We have to turn up the intensity in the film room, we have to turn up the intensity in practice, and we have to find a way to win football games.”

Collinsworth said he hopes his Irish legacy has been to contribute to cultivating a team concept.

“The only thing people care about is winning,” Collinsworth said. “If people have personal great days, but we lose, everyone is upset. No one cares about their personal day. It is all about winning with this squad, and that’s something that I hope continues in the future.”

And that leprechaun pose … there’s still time for that to happen.

“I’m going to square up next time,” Collinsworth said. “You can count on that.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent