NEW CANAAN — Michael Collins was talking with a reporter during FCIAC Football Media Day last week when John Marinelli, the new coach at Greenwich and his former offensive coordinator at New Canaan, walked by and sat next to the quarterback.
Marinelli put his arm around Collins and listened to him answer a few questions before getting up and uttering five words before departing.
“Best quarterback I’ve ever coached.”
It was a ringing endorsement for Collins, the strong-armed senior whose emergence as a junior last year helped New Canaan get to the FCIAC championship game and then avenge a loss to Darien for a state title. And it is the continued development of the 6-5 Collins, who threw for 2,624 yards and 32 touchdowns, that has many believing the Rams can run the table this fall.
Those close to the program have privately confided that by December, Collins may be recognized as the best quarterback during a decade-long run that started with Curt Casali and was followed by, in order, Charlie Westfal, Nate Quinn, Turner Baty, Matt Milano and Nick Cascione.
It is considerable praise — those six and Collins occupy seven of the top eight spots in the team record book for career passing yards. It also means little to the unflappable Collins.
“I don’t usually pay attention to that,” Collins said when asked if he was aware of the discussion. “That might be a nice accolade to have, but that’s not my main goal right now. My goal this season is to be the best team we can be.”
In other words, Collins could care less about mythical titles, just tangible ones. It is the reason Collins worked even harder this offseason, going to assorted college camps and spending more time in the weight room, than a year ago, when he still had to prove himself.
“Obviously having a year of varsity experience under your belt helps you,” Collins said. “I’m always motivated.”
New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said Collins’ performance this year could hinge not as much on ability as adapting to change. For one, Alex LaPolice and Michael Kraus, his two top receivers, have graduated. Kyle Smith leads the returning cast, but will the new faces be as sure at stretching the field?
“It is hard to tell who the go-to guys are,” Marinellli said. “It is hard to replace LaPolice and Kraus. We do have Kyle back. He’s a three-year starter. Michael is getting more and more confidence with the team around him, but it is a work in progress.”
Marinelli also noted the intangible of how Collins will deal with the change in offensive coordinators, which is not an indictment of Dante Correnty, who has been elevated on the staff, and more an acknowledgment of the bond between the quarterback and John Marinelli.
“I think he was devastated by the loss of Johnny,” Lou Marinelli said. “Johnny spent a lot of time with him. They were always together in the war room, going through film and stuff like that. It was a special relationship.”
Collins, who will get to play against his former mentor on Oct. 24 when New Canaan travels to Greenwich in one of the most anticipated games of the regular season, said there has been a transition.
“It’s a different feeling,” Collins said. “Coach Correnty is doing a great job. Coach Marinelli has his own program now and I wish him luck, except against us.”
Collins won’t have the distractions of the college recruiting process to contend with: he has already committed to UPenn. And he pointed out last year the Rams had just one returning offensive lineman. This year there are three, including left tackle Lucas Niang, a top Division I prospect.
Few things seem to fluster Collins, including the crucible not just of equaling last season’s accomplishments, but surpassing them.
“Same goals as last year,” he said. “A state championship and FCIAC championship are down the road. At this point we are just focusing on the opener with Ridgefield. Every year is different. There are a lot of different guys. But we have been working hard and now it’s just a matter of putting it all together.”