North Carolina Central’s ‘Mookie’ Collier remains focused on Celebration Bowl goal
Driven by his family and the memory of his high school teammate, Eagles running back stays hungry for a second title as buzz around him grows
Throughout his five seasons at North Carolina Central University, Latrell “Mookie” Collier’s coaches and teammates have come to know him as a humble hard worker, even as Collier’s ability to carve up opposing teams’ defenses has earned him national attention.
A season ago, the 5-foot-10 running back laid out a Jackson State University defender with a stiff arm during overtime in the 2022 Cricket Celebration Bowl, a moment that went viral on social media, and helped lead the Eagles to their first Celebration Bowl title.
This season, Collier currently ranks second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in rushing yards (575) and is tied for second in the conference in rushing touchdowns scored (seven). In late October, the Black College Football Hall of Fame invited Collier to the 2024 HBCU Legacy Bowl, and a few NFL scouts have even visited the Eagles’ practices to watch him.
As his senior year winds down, Collier is reflecting on his evolution from a redshirt freshman hoping for playing time to the vocal leader the Eagles are leaning on as they try to earn another bid to compete for a second consecutive Black college national championship.
Throughout the good and rough times during his time at North Carolina Central, the Bluefield, West Virginia, native constantly reminds himself of his motivation: his mother, Kelinda Gray; his brother, Lykel Collier; his nephew, Tavion Mays; and his high school teammate Tony Webster III, who died in 2019 from a brain aneurysm.
Collier’s No. 5 jersey number is a tribute to Webster, who wore the same number while at Bluefield High School with Collier.
“Every day I step onto the field I’ll never take anything for granted in life, because you never know. That’s my ‘why’ and it just helps me every time I step onto the field, because it’s much bigger than me,” Collier said. “It’s not just about me, it’s about my why, my teammates, the coaching staff, North Carolina Central in general. So every time I’m out there that’s what I’m planning for, thinking about, and it keeps me going every day.”
Lykel Collier said his brother has a bigger purpose in life.
“Every time he stepped on the field, he’s praying and I think he’s just talking to Tony,” he said.
Collier joined North Carolina Central in 2019 as part of head football coach Trei Oliver’s first recruiting class, transferring from Marshall University, where he spent most of his freshman year on the scout team helping the team prepare for their games. He split carries with other running backs and was the team’s fourth-leading rusher that season but questioned daily whether he still had the same love for football or should he enter his name into the transfer portal for the second time.
His family and friends encouraged him to stay at North Carolina Central. When the coronavirus pandemic canceled the Eagles’ 2020 season, Collier returned home and worked out daily with the hope of getting bigger, stronger and faster, reigniting his passion for football.
“Had I received that playing time and those blessings early on, who knows if I’d be the same man I am today or the same player, or if I would be going as hard as I’m going right now,” Collier said. “So I’m thankful that I went through those things, and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way because I learned a lot about myself, about the game, and I was able to grow as a man on and off the field.”
Lykel Collier said his brother’s work ethic comes from their mother.
“She had to [work] basically for survival and just seeing my mom just work hard, stay over and do whatever it takes to provide for us, I think that’s where the work ethic comes from with him,” his brother said.
In 2021, North Carolina Central senior running back Isaiah Totten was the solid starter for the Eagles, along with then-graduate senior Jorden Freeman. Collier received snaps at running back and finished the season with six touchdowns and 80 carries for 399 yards, but most of his snaps came on special teams.
“Mook never once complained [and] always had a positive attitude,” Totten said. “His requirements were definitely a lot doing special teams and still kind of getting some action at running back. He is a testament of just hard work.”
“That 2022 season, I said this year is gonna be the year that I go out here and, like, give it my all on every single play, whether that’s me running the ball, catching the ball, pass protection or whatever the case may be,” Collier said. “Coaches [were] trusting in me. It was all worth it. The hard work was slowly, slowly paying off.”
North Carolina Central quarterback Davius Richard praised Collier’s determination.
“He just came in, doing his due diligence every day [and] came to work on time. Always was one of the hardest-working guys on the field, and then just patiently waiting for his time,” Richard said. “When he came up, he just took it, ran with it and never looked back.”
Collier and Richard are the top weapons for the Eagles, who sit in first place in the conference standings. Collier and Richard are ranked No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, in the MEAC in rushing yards with a combined total of 1,028 so far this season. Richard and Collier are also ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in rushing touchdowns with a combined total of 20. North Carolina Central also currently leads the MEAC in total points scored for the season.
Collier and Richard have built a strong rapport as teammates for the past five seasons. During spring and summer practices, they made sure to get extra reps in together to ensure they were on the same page regarding pass protection and playcalling. Richard has full faith in Collier. He is confident his backfield teammate knows offensive plays and proper coverage and will make big plays once the ball is in Collier’s hands.
“He gives defenses a lot to worry about. You got to worry about not only him running the ball and getting all the attention, [but] they got to worry about me [too]. That kind of helps with play-action and the passing game,” Richard said of Collier. “He can turn a half-yard screen into a 40-yard touchdown. He just intimidates defenses.”
Collier’s teammates have learned to depend on the fifth-year senior as a team motivator and leader.
“If somebody [is] struggling in practice or if something bad happened in the game or [a] bad play, he’s one of the first ones to come up to me and say, ‘Hey, man, it’s gonna be good. Just learn from it. Move on. We still got a whole lot of ball to play,’ ” Richard said.
Lykel Collier has noticed the positive change in his brother since his freshman year. He recalls watching North Carolina Central’s game against Campbell University on Sept. 30 and noticing his once-shy brother becoming a team leader and dependable offensive threat for the Eagles.
Oliver said he has noticed it, too.
“Mookie leads by example but has become much more of a vocal leader this season,” Oliver said via text message. “He has had a huge impact on our success this year, as we have been able to lean on him in several games. While he is a dynamic threat as a rusher, his biggest improvement has been without the ball in his hands in pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield.”
Collier is focused on grinding through the MEAC schedule with only two remaining conference games. Despite last year’s success, he said he and his teammates are accepting nothing less than a MEAC championship and a bid back to Atlanta for this year’s Celebration Bowl.
“We have so much trust and faith in one another, and the coaches have faith in us and trust us,” he said. “We just continuously want to get better every day. We’re never complacent.
“Yes, we may be top 10 in the country in FCS football, but we’re not satisfied with that.”