Nick Perry couldn’t quite understand why Landon Collins had a smile on his face Sunday.
Especially considering it was a little before 8 a.m. — earlier than normal for the two Alabama defensive backs to be getting ready to do interviews with reporters at the New Orleans Downtown Marriott at the Convention Center.
But then it dawned on Perry.
That’s just who Collins is.
“Landon is always laid-back and always smiling,” Perry said. “He is from the Big Easy, and he’s easy-going.”
Well, until he puts on that No. 26 jersey.
“He turns from this funny, smiling guy to an animal, a freak, a beast on the field,” Perry said. “It’s crazy that he can change that much when he gets on the field and strap that helmet on.”
Collins has had plenty to smile about, both on and off the field.
He can smile about his past, a winding journey that took him from Algiers to Sicily Island in north Louisiana, back to Algiers, to Geismar and now to Tuscaloosa, where he has become a consensus All-American.
And he can smile about his future, which will make the hard-hitting junior safety a millionaire if he decides that Thursday’s Sugar Bowl against Ohio State and a possible national title game matchup Jan. 12 will be his final appearances in an Alabama uniform.
He’d almost be crazy to return next season. NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. has Collins at No. 10 on his big board, a list of the top draft-eligible players, if Collins chooses to forego his senior season.
“He is clearly the best safety in this draft,” Kiper said.
Kiper projects Collins would be drafted as high as No. 5 and no lower than No. 15. The fifth pick in last year’s draft, Oakland linebacker Khalil Mack, signed a four-year deal worth $18.7 million guaranteed. The 15th pick, Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier, signed for $9.5 million guaranteed.
“I think he is in that position where everybody thinks he is going to go,” said Benny Saia, who coached Collins at Dutchtown High School. “When you’re talented, that junior year is when you go out. If you’re going to be a first-round draft pick, it’s sort of silly to go back.”
Collins remains mum on a decision that seems like a no-brainer.
“I would say I haven’t put any thought into it,” he said. “I’m just worrying about this game and hopefully win this game and get to the next one. I want to ball out and bring this ring home.”
But to get to the championship game in Arlington, Texas, Collins first must win in his hometown — just a few blocks away from Hunter’s Field Park, where he first started delivering those bone-jarring hits.
“I have been laying people out since park ball, since I was 5 years old,” Collins said with a laugh. “I always did it, and it stayed with me.”
It started with “The Tunnel,” a simple yet effective drill.
Two players lie on their backs.
They both get up.
The one without the ball tackles the one with the ball.
“That’s where we got our toughness from,” Collins said.
That toughness never left.
“He’s a huge hitter,” Bama receiver Amari Cooper said. “I don’t get to see that part in practice, lucky for me. But I see enough of it in the games.”
Collins leads Alabama with 91 tackles and has three interceptions, including two that sealed wins against Arkansas and then-No. 1 Mississippi State.
“He’s the commander-in-chief,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “He has a physical attitude, a toughness, that you want your whole defense to take on.”
New Orleans wasn’t kind to Alabama last season, when it lost to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
And New Orleans wasn’t kind to Collins nine years ago, when Hurricane Katrina forced his family to leave its Algiers home and head to north Louisiana, right outside of Monroe, to avoid the storm.
His mother, April Justin, made headlines a few years ago when she expressed her displeasure after Collins chose Bama over LSU — and again last year, when her other son, Gerald Willis, picked Florida over the Tigers.
She was the one who made the decision to leave before Katrina hit.
“They were talking about it being a Category 5, and I didn’t want to go through that — and I definitely didn’t want my kids to go through that,” she said.
Collins remembers family members cramming into his uncle’s three-bedroom home, and he recalls how hard the wind was blowing that day.
“So I could only imagine what was going on in the city,” Collins said. “Just to turn on the TV and see pictures of people right there around the Superdome — that was the worst vision and experience I have ever experienced. All I could think about was, ‘Would I have a home to go to?’ ”
His mother’s house in Algiers was fine. His dad’s home in Port Sulphur wasn’t.
“One part of the house was halfway up the road, and the other part was on the football field at South Plaquemines (High School),” Collins said.
Collins was 12 at the time, just a few years away from making an immediate impact at Dutchtown.
It didn’t take long.
“He was a full-grown man when he got here,” Saia said. “He was a guy who you could always depend on every day to do what he was supposed to do.”
Collins’ exploits at Dutchtown are legendary. He is still the only player in the state to make the Louisiana Sports Writers Association Class 5A all-state team on both offense and defense.
His team went 20-0 in the regular season his last two years. And of course there was the game against Zachary, when Collins scored a touchdown on each of his first four carries.
Collins still hangs out with his good friends from those Dutchtown teams, especially Aaron Davis and JaColby Bureau.
“He doesn’t let the fame get to him,” Davis said.
Bureau doesn’t think he ever will.
“He has always been talented and always had a chip on his shoulder, but he never got the big head,” Bureau said. “So, no, he won’t change.”
Whether he is back in Tuscaloosa next season or in some NFL city, something else will never change: the place he calls home.
“This is where I grew up and lived my whole life,” he said. “This will always be my home.”