Alex Collins has been down to the University of Miami at least a handful of times since the Hurricanes became the first major FBS program to offer him a scholarship last year when he was a junior.
But those unofficial visits down to Coral Gables, Collins explained Wednesday, were usually just trips to have fun. Friday, Collins will head back down to UM with a different mindset -- to see if playing for coach Al Golden and the Hurricanes is something he can really envision himself doing.
"When I went there before I didn't go there with the mindset of 'Can I be here for the next four years of my life? Is this a school I can see myself at? Am I comfortable here?,' " said Collins, rated the No. 1 all-purpose running back in the country by 247Sports.com.
"I always would go down there and was just sort of happy to be there, like 'This is a nice place. I'm happy to see the coaches, players.' I never went there to envision 'Is this my future?' "
Collins (5-11, 200) hopes to figure that out soon. Once committed to the Hurricanes for almost a year until he decided in November to pull back and look at all of his options, Collins said he's still mulling over a top five or six with three weeks to go before National Signing Day.
So why has it taken Collins so long to narrow things down? Well, as his coach Doug Gatewood explained Wednesday, "it's hard for Alex to tell anybody 'No.'"
"I like to make everyone happy," said Collins, who ran for 1,276 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games his senior season. "It's always hard to make everyone happy. But to tell coaches no thank you makes you feel like you're missing out on an opportunity.'
"My worst fear is that after I make my decision I say 'Dang I made a mistake.' That's why I've tried to take every visit so I don't have a doubt in my mind."
Collins, who already visited Florida, Wisconsin and Florida State, did say 'No' to somebody on Wednesday: Louisville assistant coach Clint Hurtt, who visited South Plantation in hopes of trying to sway him to take a visit there before Signing Day.
As it stands, the Hurricanes are a bit fortunate to be getting a visit from Collins this weekend. The University of Texas, who began recruiting Collins after he went out to California and played in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in California, was pushing for Collins to take a visit to Austin this weekend instead of Coral Gables. But in the end, Collins decided to stick with his original plan.
Next week, though, Collins will take his last official visit to Arkansas, where former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and assistant Charlie Partridge are trying hard to sway him.
Collins, who at one point had a top three of Miami, Florida State and Wisconsin, explained Wednesday how coaching changes at FSU and Wisconsin really shook up the big picture for him. At one point after de-committing from Miami, Florida State was Collins' leader. But once FSU running backs coach Eddie Gran left to become the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati last month, that changed everything.
"Now as it sit down and think about it I don't have a leader," Collins aid. "Everybody is level. Everybody has the same opportunity."
As far as the Hurricanes are concerned, Collins said looming NCAA sanctions are no longer a serious negative for him because the program decided to self-impose a second bowl ban and is "starting to punish themselves" so the NCAA's sanctions "shouldn't be as harsh."
Ultimately, Collins said, reaching a decision on where to sign will not be easy. He said he's already tried sitting down and making lists of positive factors and negative factors for each school. "It's hard to go by a list," Collins said.
He's studied rosters; which majors are available at each school (he wants to study either criminal justice, broadcasting or sports medicine) and is listening to his mother (who is pushing UM because she wants him close to home) and his coach (a Hurricanes fan who wants Collins to make the best decision for himself in the end). Collins said ultimately it will probably just come down to where he feels most comfortable.
In terms of personnel at the respective schools and the way these programs utilize running backs, Gatewood said Collins "wants to be at a program that more of a featured back than a back by committee."
"That's what he always liked at Wisconsin," Gatewood said. "Even though they used three running backs, Montee Ball was the running back. Whenever he needed a break, they brought James White in. Whereas Florida and Florida State use the back by committee approach. Arkansas has the same staff as Wisconsin so you assume they'll do the same thing as Wisconsin.
"Miami is hard to tell because depth was an issue. They really couldn't do back by committee because there wasn't enough of a committee. Florida isn't going to change. They're going to be the same as they've always been. Florida State is going to be same. Jimbo [Fisher] is not going to change because Eddie [Gran] left."
The Hurricanes are looking for a bigger back like Collins to compliment ACC Freshman of the Year Duke Johnson, who will have senior Eduardo Clements and redshirt freshman Danny Dillard backing him up in 2013. Collins, who maintains a friendship with Johnson on Facebook and talks to him occasionally, said Wednesday he feels like there is an opportunity to play at Miami and that he can "come in and perform and get playing time as a freshman."
Said Collins of Johnson: "I would hate to go down there and take his spot."
Gatewood, who has maintained long-term friendships with Bielema, Gran and Partridge through recruiting in his time as a coach in South Florida, said anyone who gets the idea he wants Collins to leave South Florida "is off base." He said he would love to see Collins play at Miami, but is staying out of the decision-making process.
"In the end, I'm just hoping to get an answer after these next two visits," Collins said. "It's not going to be easy. I'm going to have say 'No' to a few people on Feb. 6.'"
> Miami Northwestern safety Artie Burns, who received a visit at school Wednesday from LSU coach Les Miles, said he and fellow UM commitments Jamal Carter and Kevin Olsen will take officials visits to Miami this weekend to help solidify this year's signing class.
"We got a few guys like Alex Collins, Denver Kirkland and others we want to make sure become Hurricanes," Burns said. "Coach Golden has a good thing going. We're turning things around."