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Winters under radar

Harvard QB right on target

Harvard QB Collier Winters (left) played just five games last season because of a groin injury. Harvard QB Collier Winters (left) played just five games last season because of a groin injury. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / September 16, 2011

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Starting with the headliners, the names at the 2011 Manning Passing Academy were high-wattage.

The four-time MVP and Super Bowl MVP Manning (Peyton), the Super Bowl champion Manning (Eli), the oil trading Manning (Cooper), and papa Manning (Archie) were the hosts at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. Then there were the college quarterbacks doubling as camp counselors for the weekend, practically a Heisman Trophy watch roll call. Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, Boise State’s Kellen Moore, Florida State’s E.J. Manuel.

“If there was a school with a big-name quarterback,’’ Collier Winters said, “he was there.’’

Winters, Harvard’s 5-foot-11-inch signal-caller with the long hair, laid-back attitude, and accurate arm, only showed up on specific radars.

“Coach Buddy Teevens from Dartmouth was about the only one who knew who I was,’’ Winters said.

Winters left Teevens a little forget-me-not last fall, running for two touchdowns and throwing for 212 yards in leading Harvard to a 30-14 dismantling of the Big Green in a game in which Winters wasn’t even supposed to play.

So when it came time for the quarterbacks to compare cannons in a passing competition, most bet on the biggest names and not the biggest arms.

They never saw Winters coming.

They turned three golf carts into targets. One across the field at 10 yards. Another at 20. The last was down the sideline, about 40 yards away. The game was to hit them and win. Winters tagged them all.

“Accuracy’s probably one of the strengths of my game,’’ Winters said. “It’s something I’ve worked a lot on this summer, throwing to targets. So I was just having fun. It was one round of passing. Sometimes it doesn’t work your way. That day, it did. Being able to go up against those guys and compete was the best part about it.’’

When it was over, Winters took a picture with the Mannings. He was nearly a head shorter than all of them. Playing at his size and at his position, he’s used to being overlooked. But even with a loaded résumé already, he’ll have a chance to sneak up on the Ivy League this season. A torn groin muscle cost him the first five games last year, robbing him of a season he was supposed to dominate. He was picked as the Ivy’s preseason offensive player of the year after accounting for 2,156 total yards, throwing for 15 touchdowns, and running for two in 2009.

This year, he’s not the preseason media darling. But he’s the quarterback that gives the Crimson the best chance of winning the Ivy League crown for the first time in three years.

“It’s tough to say how much better we would have been,’’ Crimson coach Tim Murphy said. “But he’s one of those guys that’s a catalyst to our team, he’s a great leader, and for all those reasons he means a lot to our team.’’

The groin injury could have cost Winters all of last season, but he returned Oct. 23 against Dartmouth. He played the last five games of the year (892 passing yards, five touchdowns, five picks), but he was limited.

Going into this season - the opener is tomorrow at Holy Cross - injuries aren’t a concern.

“I think I’m probably as healthy as I’ve been, maybe even since freshman year,’’ Winters said. “I wasn’t holding anything back this preseason. Those kind of doubts hadn’t really set in. I feel like I was healthy all summer.’’

At the end of last season, when Murphy gave Winters his evaluation, he kept it simple: Stay healthy. A torn labrum cost Winters his sophomore season. He had no choice but to take a medical redshirt.

“It’s not the lack of wanting to be,’’ Murphy told Winters. “You’ve got to want to be a full-season durable player.’’

Winters had a breakout season in 2009 and wanted to carry the momentum into last season, but he tore his groin making a throw in a preseason scrimmage. He was maniacal about rehab, sitting in ice tubs, never leaving home without a machine with electrodes that relaxed his muscles, and practically making strength coaches his wingmen. But injury, in theory, is one thing Winters has no control over.

“To a greater extent it is out of your control, but it does focus on your training, your preparation, and your resolve,’’ Murphy said. “Are those things you can affect? Yeah, I think you can.’’

The Crimson went 7-3 last season, 5-2 in the Ivy. There was plenty of time in the offseason to think about how the team would have looked had Winters had a full season. They put up the second-most total yards (3,858), but were fifth in the league in passing yards (1,883).

“I’ve thought about that and I think coming into that season I had really high expectations and goals,’’ Winters said. “I felt good about everything. I felt like we had a really strong offensive unit. Getting hurt really set everything back. Had I played the full season we might have put up better numbers offensively.’’

Even when he returned, he wasn’t the same quarterback who did his damage out of the pocket. In 2009, he carried the ball 108 times for 295 yards. Last season, the injury made him cautious. Designed run plays went out the window. When Winters scrambled, he was playing it safe and throwing the ball instead of running and risking a collision. He rushed 32 times for 36 yards.

“I was pretty limited in my running,’’ he said.

There have been no preseason hiccups this season, and Winters’s preparation has led to confidence. He’s weighs 200 pounds for the first time in his career. He’s bench-pressing 315 pounds.

“He’s as strong as he’s ever been,’’ Murphy said. “We feel and he feels that he’s just reaching his peak as a college athlete and he’s going to be a strong, durable guy.’’

If he needed more motivation, he found it in the Ivy League preseason poll, which ranked Harvard second behind defending champion Penn. Before this year, the Crimson topped the poll four of the last five seasons.

“I think those expectations that were kind of set last year are still what we expect this year,’’ Winters said. “It’s still on my mind. I feel like people are overlooking us a little bit. We still have the same level of talent and the same expectations of winning the league as we do every year.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

Harvard vs. Holy Cross

What: Crimson’s season opener

When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

Where: Fitton Field, Worcester