During this fall camp, Jalen Collins made plays that would make any defensive back proud.
Maybe he deflected a pass, got an interception or made a touchdown-saving tackle.
Either way, the LSU cornerback always thought the same: “Wow, I don’t know what happened last year.”
“Looking back on last year and looking now,” Collins said, “I could have been doing this all of the time. Just didn’t have my mind right.”
Collins calls last season his sophomore slump. He followed an impressive redshirt freshman season in 2012 with a disappointing struggle in 2013.
What happened? He lost his starting spot to a true freshman and slipped so far down the depth chart that another rookie surpassed him.
By the end of the season, LSU’s secondary was the worst on the team when it comes to depth. Even defensive coordinator John Chavis said, “We had to really dig deep.”
They stopped digging at Collins, though. He rarely saw the field.
Already, that’s changing.
Collins has spent much, if not all, of preseason practice with the starting group opposite cornerback Tre’Davious White, the guy who stole his starting spot a year ago.
As No. 13 LSU heads into the season opener against No. 14 Wisconsin, Collins appears poised to play a substantial amount of snaps – if not start – in the highly anticipated game in Houston.
He proved enough in these last four weeks.
“He’s a guy who’s playing with a chip on his shoulder,” receiver Travin Dural said. “He had two freshmen come in and take his job.”
Expected starter Rashard Robinson has been running with the second-string group, and his situation seems murky. Asked specifically about Robinson starting Wednesday, Miles answered with two sentences: “Rashard Robinson practiced today. Everything’s good.”
For Collins, this is an opportunity he’s been craving, but one he knows can disappear quickly.
“It’s always an honor to be out there with the 1s,” he said. “It’s always a little more motivation from last year just because, you know, because you’re running with the ones doesn’t always mean you’ll always be there.”
He’s returned there by refocusing himself, Collins said.
To understand that, one must understand Collins. He’s never absent of a smile. Even when discussing the lows of 2013, Collins has a sweeping grin.
He’s happy go lucky. He’s a jokester. He’s an affable character who’s never too serious.
That was part of the problem last year, he said. His focus on each play waned through the game.
“It’s tough, but you just have to remember what you’re out there for,” he said. “You’re not out there to say, ‘OK, I did good these couple of plays. Now I get to chill.’ I got to go hard every play for my team.”
It’s been happening at least in practice, players say.
White used the word “great” three times in one sentence to describe Collins’ fall camp.
Dural notices a more serious tone. Collins isn’t goofing off half of the time at practice. He’s no more a distraction to himself and his teammates.
“He’s focused the whole two, three hours. He’s not joking around. He’s trying to make plays,” Dural said. “When he slips up, he takes it out on himself pretty hard.”
There’s a reason for this: Last season.
Collins began the year starting opposite Jalen Mills. He was another young defensive back poised to justify LSU’s nickname of “DBU.”
After all, he played in every game in 2012, was second on the squad in pass breakups (8) and had 30 tackles and two interceptions.
He didn’t equal any of those stats last season. Collins lost his starting job after the second week. When LSU moved Mills to safety late in the year, Robinson took the cornerback spot opposite White.
“That was tough being taken out,” he said.
He’s over last season now – “Definitely past it,” he said – and is looking forward to what at least one player on the team thinks could be a pro career.
Rated as one of the top 30 cornerbacks exiting Olive Branch High in Mississippi, Collins has an unusually large build for a defensive back. He’s 6-2, and 200-plus pounds.
The future’s bright – if the focus is right.
“You don’t see too many 6-2, 205 pound cornerbacks who can run,” linebacker Lamar Louis said. “He had a good freshman season. Sophomore (had) some bumps. We go through that. I even went through that. I see him having one of those breakout seasons. I see him being drafted pretty high whenever he makes that decision.”