Mack Hollins is 6-foot-4, 221 pounds; lean, fast and tough. When he walks through the Eagles’ locker room with the quiet, rolling gait of a leopard, it would be easy to figure him for the star wide receiver, even in a room where there are a bunch of other leopards prowling around.
It might be that is Hollins’ destiny sometime soon, being the star, and he’s competing every day at camp to break into a crowded playing rotation that includes Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Bryce Treggs and others. But Hollins has looked like the part for quite a while without ever landing the role. It’s something of a mystery, and he’s among those who might be slightly mystified.
“I don’t know. Really,” he said the other day.
The specific question was why he didn’t have a Division I scholarship offer after starring as a two-way player at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., where he also played basketball in the winter and lacrosse in the spring.
Finding a guy in an NFL locker room – let alone one taken in the fourth round of the draft – who didn’t have a single college offer is a difficult task. There are late-bloomers, certainly, and specialty players such as kickers and punters who have to work to get attention, but a tall, quick wide receiver who catches the ball? There are 128 football programs in what used to be called Division I-A.
“Especially now, you have to be at those Nike camps and have to play for a high school that’s big-time or else have to be scoring seven touchdowns a game — which I wasn’t,” Hollins said. “My high school didn’t win a lot of games. I think we went to the playoffs once in the last 25 years.”
Scouts find their time better spent at crosstown rival Richard Montgomery High, which produced former Colts linebacker Mike Curtis (and former 76ers general manager Billy King) than at Wootton, whose students have an 89 percent advanced-placement participation rate, but are somewhat less likely to take part in postseason athletic play.
“I think I was just under the radar, but that never made me change my path,” Hollins said.
In order to get a little more exposure, Hollins took a post-high-school year at Fork Union Military Academy, and that went so swimmingly that a coach suggested Hollins should learn to be a long snapper. Among Fork Union’s alumni is Danny Aiken, who made an NFL career out of it, including on a New England Super Bowl team.
“I said, ‘All right.’ So, I taught myself how to long snap,” Hollins said. “I’ve never had to do it in a game, but I know how, just in case.”
After his year at Fork Union, Hollins did attract several Division I invitations — as a walk-on. Well, that didn’t change the path, either, and Hollins chose North Carolina, where he became a Swiss Army Knife on special teams (earning his scholarship, finally) and, eventually, a successful wide receiver. He was captain of the special teams all four seasons as a Tar Heel and, as with other things, try finding another guy in the Eagles’ locker room with that on his resume. Hollins just views it as the key to the door he wanted to open.
“Special teams is really the way I got on the field,” he said.
Once there, he didn’t catch a pass as a freshman, but totaled 65 catches, 1,358 yards and 16 touchdowns in his sophomore and junior years. He was on pace for another good season as a senior, with the NFL draft on the horizon, when he — wait for it — broke his collarbone after seven games and missed the rest of the year.
“It happens. Broken bones, you can’t control those,” Hollins said. “You just have to prove people wrong and bounce back. I’ve been doing it for a while.”
Hollins ran the fastest 40-yard time for a receiver his size at the scouting combine (4.53 seconds), which was expected. He’s a stretch-the-field threat who averaged 20.6 yards per catch with the Tar Heels. The Eagles took him with their first Day 3 selection (118th overall) and Howie Roseman still had to defend the pick as something more than a special-teams player taken in the fourth round.
Who knows? After all this time, maybe it is finally the right time for Mack Hollins. He’s going to be on special teams for sure, perhaps all four units, but his ability to breeze past defensive backs and catch the ball is getting noticed in camp. He needs to work on underneath routes and downfield blocking, but that’s easier than trying to develop speed and hands.
“I think everybody is expecting him to contribute big-time on special teams,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “Then he needs to start out this year as a backup receiver who can be dependable, who can play multiple positions. With his size and his length, [he] needs to be a guy who can be physical, who will be aggressive in the run game. He’s got good speed and he can get vertical down the field. He’s proved he can do that in college. He needs to prove that he can do that at this level.”
That’s nothing new for Hollins, who has needed to prove himself at every level, and here he is, competing for a job at the highest level of them all. This week, it starts to get very serious.
“Everybody’s good with no pads on. It’s more fun with pads on,” Hollins said. “You get to go one-on-one, and we’ll find out. The tape will be rolling.”
He’s not at the top of the receivers list yet, but maybe he’s not that far away, either. One thing is certain. In the event of an emergency, do not ask Alshon Jeffery to be the long snapper. He never had to learn.