Gunter Brewer coached Randy Moss at Marshall and Dez Bryant at Oklahoma State, but even he would acknowledge that it necessarily doesn’t take much to start greatness gushing from a talent well so deep. Sometimes a football coach shows just how good he is by helping a marginal player, or a player who was thought to be marginal, become something more. Take, for instance, a player whom Brewer coached once and will coach again. Take Mack Hollins.
Before the Eagles hired him in March to be their wide receivers coach, Brewer had spent the previous six years at the University of North Carolina. He was the Tar Heels’ co-offensive coordinator. He was in charge of recruiting for a year. And he coached their wideouts, including Hollins, who caught 16 passes as a rookie for the Eagles last season. But Hollins wasn’t a star when he stepped on campus at Chapel Hill for the first time. He was a walk-on, happy to do whatever he was asked just to earn and retain a spot on the roster, and Brewer didn’t know much about him. In fact, Brewer said Tuesday, he didn’t really notice Hollins until former NFL wide receiver Sam Aiken, a UNC alumnus who had returned to volunteer as a graduate assistant for the 2012 season, pointed him out to Brewer at a practice.
“He saw him when we were doing crossover stuff and just recognized his ability to scale up over people, jump, his tenacity – just recognized his talent, really,” Brewer said. “And he said, ‘Hey Coach, this guy’s got some length. He’s got some ball skills. He’s snapping the ball. He played a little defense. Played receiver. We need to make sure we get him on our side.’”
They got him, they being the Tar Heels’ offensive coaches, and under Brewer, Hollins developed into a valuable deep threat over his final three seasons at North Carolina, catching 81 passes for 20 touchdowns and a robust 20.6 yards per reception. And as it turned out, Aiken’s instant evaluation of Hollins wasn’t much different from the one that the Eagles made of him ahead of last year’s draft, when they selected him in the fourth round.
Hollins was an unusual pick and an unusual rookie. Listed at 6 foot-4 and 221 pounds, he had been so versatile and such a good special-teams player in college that it was presumed, from the moment the Eagles drafted him, that he would make the team and contribute immediately. And he did, playing more than 50 percent of the Eagles’ special-teams snaps and more than 25 percent of their offensive snaps, averaging more than 14 yards over his 16 receptions, one of which was a 64-yard touchdown pass from Carson Wentz during a Week 7 victory over the Redskins.
“He’s a jack of all trades,” said Brewer, who spent 32 years as a college coach before joining the Eagles. “He’s a guy who knows all the spots and has the ability to come in and give you quality reps at any of those spots. Position flexibility is key when you’re on a limited roster. So his ability to know all that and be able to do that was a big factor in the run game last year, and of course that opens up the play-action part of it. I think he’s sneaky fast.”
So what kind of player and receiver might Hollins eventually become? It’s an interesting question – and, for the Eagles, a fairly important one. To their credit, the Eagles were able to overhaul the wide receiver position, arguably the weakest position on their roster as of 2016, in a year’s time. They signed and re-signed Alshon Jeffery. They traded Jordan Matthews for cornerback Ronald Darby and rid themselves of Dorial Green-Beckham. They got Torrey Smith on a one-year contract last season, and they have Mike Wallace on a one-year contract this season. They saved Nelson Agholor’s career by moving him to the slot.
For now, Hollins is fourth on that depth chart. But if he keeps improving, if he shows that he can be more than a No. 4 receiver who also covers kickoffs and punts well, then maybe the Eagles won’t have to sign another veteran receiver to a short-term contract next year, or the year after that. They could just count on Hollins, while he is still on his cost-effective rookie contract, to fill that role. In a salary-cap world, that sort of succession plan is the goal for every team: no need to spend more money on a position you’d already thought you’d addressed, no need to burn another draft pick because a previous one didn’t work out.
“Anytime you can go in and bring someone from your farm club, as you say, anytime you grow one from your own, that helps,” said Gunter Brewer, who has another chance now to show everyone what Mack Hollins, and he himself, can do.