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SAN FRANCISCO — Maliek Collins seldom misses a practice.

That doesn't mean he's always thrilled to be there.

"Sometimes you don't feel like practicing," the Nebraska defensive tackle said. "Sometimes practice isn't the most exciting thing. You can't wait to get to a game."

The daily grind can zap the energy from even the most dedicated people, regardless of enterprise. Collins, a junior, pushes hard through doldrums, in large part because he's playing for something larger than himself.

You want to see Collins smile? Ask him about Maliek Collins Jr., his 2-year-old son.

"He's always running around," Collins said. "Jumping around."

Collins is proud of his son and proud of being a Blackshirt. He cherishes his black practice jersey, which says "Collins Sr." on back. That's a double-dose of daily motivation. Little Maliek is on dad's mind constantly, even as he ponders the big decision.

Should he remain at Nebraska for one more season? Or declare for the NFL Draft?

"My main goal is to set my son up for the rest of his life," Collins said. "I want to make sure he has all the things that I didn't have growing up. Whether I get that done through education or through playing in the NFL, I feel like I'll be setting him up."

The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Collins is projected as a late first-round pick by widely respected ESPN analyst Todd McShay.

A native of Kansas City, Kansas, Collins has applied for information from the NFL Draft advisory committee as to when he might be selected. The deadline for underclassmen to declare intentions is Jan. 18.

On Tuesday, during a Foster Farms Bowl media event, Collins said he has not made a decision.

"A degree is very important to me," said Collins, a sociology major who's 36 credit hours short of graduation.

He mentioned the possibility of taking a heavy load of classes this spring, a "decent load" during the summer and a lighter load in the fall.

That he even discusses school in such detail is no doubt music to the ears of Nebraska fans.

Collins' dedication as a student and success as a player — especially last season when he led the team in tackles for loss (14) and ranked second in sacks (4½) — becomes even more impressive when you consider the challenges of his youth.

His father, the late C.W. Collins, a mechanic by trade, died of a massive heart attack when Maliek was 6. Maliek was raised along with two older sisters by his single mom, Janice.

"It forced me to mature at a young age," Collins said. "Ever since I got to college, I've always been a little more mature. But really my son helped me even more. He made me understand I'm responsible for someone other than myself. I have to hold myself accountable to that."

His rise wasn't always smooth. He attended school in Kansas City, Kansas, until the seventh grade, when he was kicked out.

"I was a bad kid, man," he said.

He essentially got straightened out in high school, becoming a standout in both football and wrestling at Kansas City (Missouri) Center High. His mother, an apartment manager, was "a huge influence," Collins said. He also had an uncle, Derek Jones, who encouraged Collins to think about college, something that wasn't in his thoughts until his sophomore or junior year at Center.

"I knew I loved football, but I never thought about college," Collins said.

Now, he's not sure he wants to leave college before completing his degree.

He's grown up well. He has a girlfriend, Keaunna. He's a dad. A proud family man. A proud family man with a big decision to make.

It seems he doesn't know right now which way he'll turn — stay in college or veer toward the NFL. He did notice that one of his favorite players, defensive lineman Mike Daniels of the Green Bay Packers, recently signed a four-year contract extension worth a reported $42 million, with $12 million guaranteed.

He sent Daniels a congratulatory text.

"He told me to keep being a dog on the D-line and that will be me one day," Collins said. "Playing this game, it's something that excites me, to be known as the best player in what they do. It's something I look forward to."

At the moment, Collins' objective is clear: finish this season strong — with a win Saturday against UCLA. He thinks back to his junior season at Center High. He was a favorite to capture the Class 2A state championship as a heavyweight wrestler, but "pissed it away" in the quarterfinals basically because he was overconfident.

As a senior, however, he won the state title.

"I finished strong," he said proudly.

Someday maybe he'll tell little Maliek all about it.

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