PROVO Not long after returning from his LDS Church mission, BYU wide receiver Austin Collie quickly realized the physical toll two years out of football had taken on his body.
When he joined his teammates on campus to run wind sprints back in January 2007, Collie finished last. During spring practices a year ago, he was out of shape and got frustrated with himself for dropping a few passes.
Despite that, and despite being hobbled by an ankle injury for much of the season, Collie ended up hauling in 56 receptions for 946 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore last fall.
While Collie produced impressive numbers, it wasn't until the Las Vegas Bowl that he started to feel like he did in 2004, when he was the Mountain West Conference freshman of the year.
"The bowl game is probably when I stopped thinking and started playing," Collie explained. "That's when I started playing to my natural ability. There's still things I'm trying to get back. My speed isn't where I want it to be. But it's coming along."
Imagine what Collie might accomplish in 2008.
"Austin is a big-time weapon, and I think he's going to have a big year," said quarterback Max Hall.
Collie has given every indication that will be the case based on his performance this spring. He's come a long way in the past year.
"You can see a big-time difference," Hall said. "He's in shape, he's feeling good, he's more confident, he's more crisp on his routes, and he's catching everything I throw at him. So it's a big deal for me to have a receiver like that.
"The thing about Austin is, he's such a hard worker. He's strong in the weight room and he's always working on his routes. He's always calling me up to go throw. He's always wanting to get better. I love it, because that's how I am. I think that's why we're such good friends, because our personalities are alike.
"A year ago, he expected to come home from his mission and be right where he was when he left, which wasn't the case," Hall said. "It took some patience on his part and letting his body get back into shape. He's done all the right things. It's been a fun spring because we've had him and all of the other guys healthy and playing well."
After a year of hard work and patience, Collie is pleased with the progression he's made.
"A year ago, I felt a little slow, a little top-heavy. Everything seemed fast," he said. "I was thinking too much. I'm not thinking as much now. I'm just playing. Everything's coming together. My legs feel a lot better, I feel faster and quicker. I'm getting to know the offense a lot better."
BYU receivers coach Patrick Higgins likes the improvement he's seen from Collie.
"By the end of (last season), he was getting back some of the quickness. He's had a year to get everything back in order. He's doing much better," he said. "He had to be patient. He had to understand that he hadn't done anything active for over two years. To get back to the point where you are when you left, it's hard. The mind says one thing, the body says another. So it can be frustrating.
"You have to take a common-sense approach, and it works out fine."
Collie's ankle sprain came during BYU's early-season loss at Tulsa. In that game, he had four catches for 121 yards and racked up 245 yards in kick and punt returns. He set a Mountain West Conference single-game record for all-purpose yards (336) and return yards.
Higgins said he and the rest of the Cougar coaches may have expected too much too soon from Collie early in the season, which may have contributed to his ankle injury.
"As a staff, we may have overloaded him," Higgins said. "We learned a very valuable lesson there."
Collie credits to his teammates, particularly Hall, as well as Higgins and the rest of the coaching staff, for his development over the past year. He said the Cougars' offense is poised to take another big step forward this season.
"Our team is phenomenal. We're working hard. and it's to the point that the offense can think each other's thoughts. We're on the same page," Collie said. "Last year was a mere glimpse of what talent we do have. People are going to see some big things this year. There's going to be a lot of excitement and we have a lot of talented players."
Hall agrees, pointing to the contributions of players such as tight end Dennis Pitta, running back Harvey Unga and wide receiver Michael Reed.
"The great thing about our team is, it's not just (Austin)," he said. "I have Dennis, I have Harvey, I have Mike. I appreciate those guys, how they work."
The changes Collie has undergone in the past year aren't limited to the football field. He recently married Brooke Pendleton, the sister of freshman safety Jordan Pendleton.
"It's the greatest thing alive," Collie said of his marriage. "Right now, I don't have to go home to an apartment full of boys. I can go home to my wife. She's awesome. She's the best there is. She rubs my ankle every night. Honestly, her rubbing my ankle has helped me a bunch."
Making the transition to being a football player's wife hasn't been a difficult transition for Brooke. Not only does she have a brother on the team, but her dad, Kirk, played wide receiver at BYU in the early 1980s. One of Kirk's teammates was wide receiver Scott Collie, Austin's dad.
Has being married changed Austin Collie at all?
"I think when you get married, after a while, it changes everybody," Hall said. "His priorities are a little more in line, instead of goofing around with us after practice. It's the same with me. We go home to our wives and spend time with them. My wife Mckinzi and I have had the opportunity to hang out with Austin and Brooke. It's been fun."
Collie said being married will make him a better player.
"Brooke helps me relax," he said. "I get anxious about things football, school and life in general. She calms me down. It takes the pressure off me a little bit. She helps me through things."She's the greatest. She pushes me harder than I push myself. She runs marathons. So she's there kicking my butt, also."