Just outside Collin Duncan’s neighborhood, a steep hill rises high into the sky, much of Montgomery, Alabama, visible from its peak.
Duncan couldn’t tell you exactly how tall it is. Neither could his older brother, CJ. But it’s big enough.
“That hill, it’ll definitely get everything out of you,” CJ said. “It’s a monster, for sure.”
So maybe it’s no surprise Duncan decided to climb it.
He introduced his older brother to the massive prominence when CJ was home from playing football at Vanderbilt and in search of places to hone his conditioning. They’d run sprints up a surface that seemed nearly “straight up and down,” which wasn’t easy. They did cone drills. Sometimes, Duncan even donned a weight vest and sprinted up the bluff.
But all that work seemed worth it for the view at the summit.
“Once you get to the top and you’re tired, it kind of resembles all the hard work you’ve put in, and now you’ve got a chance to be at the top,” Duncan said.
Duncan knows plenty about hard work. It’s how the Mississippi State junior safety seemingly has reached the top of his athletic career.
He’s a Southeastern Conference football player. He’s a starter at his position. And he’s part of a Bulldogs team that just beat his hometown program with a thrilling comeback.
But make no mistake: Collin Duncan is going to keep climbing.
“That should always be your mindset: that there’s more to accomplish in life, and there’s more to accomplish on the field and off the field,” Duncan said.
‘I’ve got to win’
By the time he was 6, Duncan was CJ’s shadow.
He followed his older brother everywhere. He did the same workouts CJ did.
The problem? CJ had six years — and plenty of inches and pounds — on the first-grader. Duncan was still growing into his body, which took a while. CJ, meanwhile, was on his way to becoming a standout player at the St. James School. He went on to play wide receiver at Vanderbilt and was even signed to the Arizona Cardinals’ 90-man roster during the 2018 offseason.
“It was amazing being able to watch my brother follow his dreams,” Duncan said. “The success he had at Vanderbilt, it was honestly amazing to watch, and it was very fun to be around.”
Early in his teenage years, Duncan told his older brother that he, too, wanted to play college football. Then, CJ said, it was “all systems go” in terms of pushing Duncan as hard as possible and giving him whatever advice he needed.
They’d face off on any football field they could find, including at St. James. Sometimes they got kicked off the field, but they’d just find another one. There, they’d walk through routes, practice pass breakup and catching drills and face off one on one.
At first, CJ — the bigger brother, the productive SEC receiver — came out on top every time. Duncan stewed in the car on the way home, scheming.
“In his eyes, it’s like, ‘I’ve got to win. I’ve got to win. I’ve got to figure out a way to beat big brother,” CJ said.
But each time out, Duncan got faster, stronger, better. He passed CJ in height as a sophomore. He picked up on signs that could indicate what type of route a receiver was running. And soon he was getting his share of wins against his older brother.
Like CJ, Duncan became a star at St. James, playing every position imaginable — quarterback, running back, wide receiver and even punter. But CJ could tell where his brother’s heart lay. Duncan’s eyes lit up after a big hit or an interception like they never did after a key catch or a touchdown run.
“He just found a little bit more joy in doing that than the offensive side of the ball,” CJ said.
A three-star prospect, Duncan had plenty of scholarship offers, including North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Hometown Auburn — just 45 minutes away — never came calling; Duncan said he wasn’t inspired or hurt by the Tigers’ decision, but CJ said it still must have stung.
“There’s always a chip on your shoulder when you feel like you might have been overlooked or someone was picked over you — whatever it may be, whatever the circumstances were,” he said.
CJ said Duncan likely would have ended up out of state regardless, and he certainly did. Intrigued by Mississippi State’s membership in the SEC, its history of strong defenses and its relative proximity to Montgomery, Duncan signed with the Bulldogs on Feb. 6, 2019.
He’s glad he did.
“I just took what I had, and I made a decision that honestly was the best decision for me and to this day has really stood the test of time in being the best decision I’ve made in a very long time,” Duncan said.
As a freshman, Duncan played in 11 games, making an impact on special teams. He recorded his first and only tackle of the season Nov. 2, 2019, against Arkansas.
And he found ways of navigating college life. Duncan and fellow freshman defensive back Martin Emerson managed to “survive” on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when their meal swipes ran out and the dining options in the athletic facility proved unappetizing. They holed up in their dorm rooms, watching game film and chowing down.
“He’s a stand-up guy,” Emerson said of Duncan. “I love playing with him.”
Duncan managed to stay close with his family in Montgomery, often talking to his parents and his brother. Every week, he picked a date to FaceTime CJ, asking for advice on life, school, and — of course — football.
“As a former receiver, he just likes to know what a receiver is thinking,” CJ said. “‘What would you think if I lined up like this? What would you think if I jammed you with my right arm or my left arm? What should I be thinking if a receiver comes off the ball like this?’”
Whatever insights Duncan’s older brother had — and all the hard work Duncan put in — paid off. When starting free safety Fred Peters went down with an injury during the 2020 season, the sophomore was next up at the position. He made his first start Oct. 31 against Alabama, and the next week against Vanderbilt — with his family in attendance to see the Bulldogs face CJ’s old school — Duncan recorded his first career interception and forced fumble. He finished the season with 46 tackles (2.5 for loss) and two picks.
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett pointed to Duncan’s interceptions and his ability to make open-field tackles as reasons for his success.
“Reviewing the film from last year, I thought he was probably our most improved guy from when the season started to when he finished playing for us as a starter, and he’s just taken off from there,” Arnett said.
That development has taken place physically in addition to Duncan’s play. Head coach Mike Leach said Duncan got “incrementally bigger” over the course of a productive spring and summer.
“The offseason was huge,” Leach said. “I think just as much experience as we could get him in practice has helped him.”
So has Duncan’s size and increased physicality. All the time he spent training bumped his weight over the 200-pound mark as his height continued to increase. He’s listed at 6 feet on the Bulldogs’ 2021 roster; CJ said his brother is at least an inch and a half larger.
“He’s a big dude now,” CJ said. “He was usually the tall and lean one. Now he’s filled out. He’s built like a mannequin now. He’s definitely the bigger of the two at this point in our lives.”
More to come
Outside Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, in front of the Mississippi State team buses, Duncan briefly resembles the mannequin his brother describes.
Overcome by joy and emotion, he is practically speechless.
Duncan had just lived what his brother and a group of family and friends in attendance Saturday had watched from the parents’ section in the corner of the south end zone: Down 28-3, Mississippi State had rallied for a 43-34 win over the host Tigers.
“Auburn is an SEC powerhouse over the years, and for them to go on the road and be able to overcome a lot of adversity and get that win, I think there was just nothing but joy,” CJ said. “I believe he was proud just of how the guys came together and fought together and got that win.”
But it didn’t take long for Duncan to put even the biggest win of the season behind him. Mississippi State has a “24-hour rule” to flush results good and bad alike, and according to CJ, Saturday’s game is the last thing on his younger brother’s mind.
That’s because there’s more to be done. Mississippi State hosts Tennessee State on Saturday before closing out the regular season Nov. 25 against Ole Miss in the Battle for the Golden Egg rivalry game. After that, the Bulldogs will play in a bowl game for the 12th straight season, clinching that with Saturday’s win at Auburn.
“We’ve won some big games this year; we’ve also lost some big games this year,” Duncan said. “There’s room to improve, and there’s definitely some more strides that we have to make. I feel like there’s definitely more to come from this team, and I feel like we can end the season on a good note.”
After that, who knows? Duncan has plenty of time left to make his mark at Mississippi State. Like his brother, he harbors NFL dreams that CJ said would bring him to tears if they came to fruition.
“When he got his opportunity to play for the Cardinals, I would say it really opened my eyes even more and kind of reassured me that hard work doesn’t fail,” Duncan said. “If I just keep working hard and keep pushing, I could be in the same position as he was.”
But Collin Duncan’s future is up to him.
Maybe it lies at the top of another high hill somewhere, waiting to be discovered.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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