- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. – La'el Collins took a risk in returning for one more season at LSU. That much is certain. But the senior offensive tackle believes that the potential payoff outweighs the chance he took by remaining in college.
Yes, returning will help him graduate from college. And yes, he’ll have one more chance to help the Tigers compete for championships. But perhaps the biggest payoff would be if he manages to improve his NFL draft stock from possible first-round pick to surefire first-round pick.
“It was a lot of things in my game that I feel like I could get better at,” Collins said. “I had so much more room to grow as a left tackle in this league, so why would I want to enter the draft and know I didn’t reach my full potential in this league first?
“So I wanted to come back and work on those things -- just being more consistent, just working on technique things and just coming out here and really just giving my all in practice. Practicing like it’s a game and putting myself through that so when it’s game time, I’m ready.”
That’s a unique attitude anywhere in college football, and especially at LSU, which has seen 18 players with eligibility remaining opt to enter the draft in the last two years.
It’s a sport-wide problem, however, as a staggering number of underclassmen enter the draft only to discover too late that they weren’t ready for the pros. Many of them, such as LSU defensive lineman and early draft entrant Anthony Johnson, aren’t even among the 256 picks in the seven-round draft.
That would not have been Collins’ fate, but when it was time to make a decision, he heeded LSU coach Les Miles’ call not to give an NFL team a bargain. Collins said he received a mix of first- and second-round draft grades from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, which helps underclassmen understand how NFL teams view their readiness to play in the league, but he felt he could do better.
He believes a second season starting at left tackle, unquestionably a premium salary position in the NFL, is well worth the injury risk that accompanies another college season -- and Collins has impressed his coaches in many ways since making that decision.
“I think leadership is evident in La’el Collins, a guy that’s really not eligible to wear 18 [a jersey number handed to a team leader each season, but offensive linemen can't wear such a low number], a guy that really turned down what was certain wealth at some level to get his degree, play championship ball here and put himself in position to move his draft status up,” Miles said. “So that kind of guy is a leader in every huddle that we break.”
Collins’ leadership came up again and again as one of his strengths, as he steadies an offense that could be heavy on freshmen at the skill positions.
“La’el Collins is a man and a great leader,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “I’ve been so impressed with him. He chose to come back and he did it for all the right reasons and he’s never looked back and he’s becoming a great, great leader. He’s impressive and I think that’s rubbing off on the other guys and he’s setting high expectations for this offense.”
Now about that draft stock.
Collins worked relentlessly since the end of his All-SEC junior season, improving his physique and working on the technical aspects of his position in order to become a more consistent blocker. New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes has noticed a difference in Collins even since they first worked together in spring practice.
“The first thing I would say about La’el is he has improved as much if not more than anybody on the line since I’ve been here, which I think is quite a statement given his experience and success that he’s had,” Grimes said. “So he is really working to get better. The other thing I can say is he’s really stepped up his leadership, which is important for a guy in his position, important for our team because he definitely has a strong voice in the locker room. Guys will follow him.”
From a technical perspective, Grimes said the keys for Collins are to play with sound technique and stay under control.
“I think the things that he’s had to do is just really refine his footwork and his hat placement and realize he’s an aggressive kid, and sometimes the most aggressive kids are the ones that may get a little out of control just wanting to whack somebody on the line of scrimmage,” Grimes said. “He’s had to realize that sometimes you have to start the block right in order to finish the play with the defender on his back."
It’s a cliché, but Collins knows improving at those little things can add up -- perhaps literally if a strong senior season results in a lucrative NFL contract. He feels he has something to prove, and that’s a big reason why he’s still a Tiger.
“You have to have the technique and that’s something that I feel like I have to be more consistent on,” Collins said. “That’s things that I really feel like I need to really put myself in it and work and come out and practice each and every day and make sure I take the correct steps, make sure I get my hat on the right side, make sure I get my hands in the right place.
"Those little things right there can carry me from now to however long I play football in my life. I just felt like I needed to work on those things.”
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