Before making his decision on whether to return to LSU for his senior season, offensive tackle La’el Collins sought advice from several sources.
But the best advice he got was from his cousin, former Tigers defensive end Marcus Spears.
“He told me, ‘If there was any doubt in your mind, you should go back to school,’ ” Collins said earlier this week at a practice for Saturday’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. “So that’s what I did.”
It was choice that Collins doesn’t regret.
Although he received grades indicating he would have been a low first- or high second-round pick if he had declared early, playing an extra year has propelled Collins into position to be the first offensive lineman taken in a year where there’s no surefire top-10 talent.
The Redemptorist graduate could become the highest drafted offensive lineman from LSU since George Rice went 12th to the Chicago Bears 49 years ago in 1966. Surprisingly, Alan Faneca (No. 26 in 1998) is the only first-rounder since then.
But it’s not history — or not even necessarily the extra money he’s earned by moving up, because it will take him a couple of seasons to recoup that, plus he’s starting got one less year toward free agency — that motivates him.
“I could have been just another draft-eligible guy and been pretty good,” said Collins, a 6-foot-5, 320-pounder who took out a $5 million insurance policy in case injury put a damper on his career hopes. “But I wanted to come back, solidify myself and give myself an opportunity to be considered great.”
And that’s why Collins has been in Mobile this week even though the majority of projected first-rounders are skipping the game, preferring to let their college play, their combine workouts and their pro days speak for them rather than risk being exposed early on against better competition.
Tackle T.J. Clemmings of Pittsburgh is the only other offensive lineman in Mobile who expected to go in the first round, and Clemmings is playing primarily because he spent only two seasons at the position in college after switching from defensive tackle.
Collins obviously has four years of college experience as an O-lineman, but he came to the game figuring that working under the tutelage of the Jacksonville Jaguars staff could only help him for what lies ahead.
“Being here brings you up to the speed of the game,” he said. “Every play is full speed, which is something you really have to adjust to,
“You’re working against NFL coaches in front of NFL scouts and against future NFL players. It makes you realize what it takes to be a pro.”
Being in the Senior Bowl has allowed Collins to work at guard along with tackle. Collins actually subbed at both positions as a true freshman in 2011 and started all 13 games at left guard the following season before shifting to left tackle as a junior and senior.
Working on the right side of the line at both spots has meant double reps for Collins, which he said he considers all for the better.
“It’s just that much more work and that much more to be able to show everybody here my versatility,” he said. “I like playing guard because it’s easier to get in front of people and stay with them than it is at tackle.
“Either way, I’ve been able to work on all levels of my game — run-blocking, pass protection, everything.”
Collins’ presence at the Senior Bowl — and work ethic — has served him well.
By all accounts he has raised his stock, showing that he is learning to harness his raw power that often had him using bad technique at the end of plays in his quest to put defenders on their backsides (“I turn a switch on during a game I and try to crush anything in front of me,” he once said) — something not as easy to accomplish in the NFL.
“He moves very well for his size,” said Josh Norris, draft analyst for Rotoworld. “So not only does he have the strength, he can reach if you want to run outside.
“He can get to the second level, too. He’s a true left tackle starter but he can play anywhere along the line as well.”
Most mock drafts have Collins going somewhere between 10th and 15th in the first round. The Saints, drafting at No. 13 and in need of interior line help, are a possibility, although Collins said he isn’t to the point of hoping for any particular team to take him.
And while Collins is obviously happy with his decision to stay in school, he’s not necessarily recommending it for everyone.
At his own initiative, Collins spoke to the draft-eligible juniors at LSU.
“I didn’t advise them one way or the other,” he said. “I just told them to look at the facts and to do what was best for them. Everybody has a different situation.”
Perhaps it was a coincidence, but after losing 10 players early in the 2013 draft and seven last year, the number dropped to three this year, part of a national trend that saw early entries drop from 104 in 2014 to 77 this year.
Among those staying in school: Collins’ fellow offensive linemen, Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander.
“Whatever you do, you have to live with your decision, because it’s one of the first ones you make as an adult,” he said. “But when you come back, you get to be a leader on your team and enjoy everything else about being a senior.
“I felt like I had a lot more reasons to stay than I did to leave and still do.”