- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU has a chance to break its year-old program record of nine players selected in the NFL draft this week. If the Tigers fail to set a new milestone, thank La’el Collins.
No really, Tiger fans, thank him. Collins’ decision to return for his senior season might wind up benefiting both player and program.
Had the All-SEC offensive tackle opted to enter the draft, he would have been a lock to become an NFL pick, raising the number of sure-fire LSU draft picks to 10. Instead, he chose to remain in order to elevate his draft stock, obtain his degree and help the Tigers compete for an SEC championship.
“Just being able to put that [decision] behind me any way it kind of went, just being able to start back focusing on whatever it was I needed to focus on -- and that was staying in school and coming back and getting better -- it feels great because I’m able to come here every day and just work hard and know that in a few months that my time is going to come,” Collins said toward the end of spring practice. “I’m just going to focus on helping my team win football games here.”
It’s obviously early, but Collins’ time will almost certainly come this time next year. He ranks among the top offensive tackle prospects for 2015, and another season playing left tackle -- he shifted there from guard last season -- will provide an opportunity to sharpen his skills and rise in the rankings.
He’ll also serve as the centerpiece of a veteran offensive line that should become the strongest point in a reloading offense.
“I feel like we’re better off because everybody is back, not just La’el,” said center Elliott Porter, one of three probable starting linemen who will be seniors. “We’re one as an offensive line. It’s not just one person, because you can’t do it with one person. La’el ain’t out there blocking everybody by himself, so La’el’s a great player, but like I said Vadal [Alexander] is back, I’m back, [Jerald] Hawkins is back. The only one we’re missing is Trai [Turner, who entered the draft], but he had to do what he had to do.
“But we have some guys coming in that can play, too, so I feel like it’s never one guy, it’s all of us. We’re coming in as one and we’re blocking people as one.”
OK, but ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. observed last season that Collins “has as much upside as any left tackle in the country,” and he’s the guy who will protect the LSU quarterback’s blind side. There is a premium on such players at any level of football, and if he continues to develop at tackle, Collins might have premium draft value in 2015, as Tigers coach Les Miles noted when he said: “I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle.”
Now it’s up to Collins.
“Coming back is part of the equation, but the second part of that is coming back with the right approach so you don't second guess yourself every day,” said LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, formerly a veteran NFL coach. “You just move forward and try to be great and help this team win. His approach is the approach you want a young man to take.”
If his springtime comments were any indication, that certainly appears to be the case.
LSU’s roster has been shredded by the NFL draft over the last two years, with a total of 18 underclassmen deciding to turn pro. Collins is one of the few recent Tigers who opted to wait when a possible NFL paycheck beckoned.
Collins said it was a long-term decision, not just because he should complete his degree before leaving LSU, but because an additional season should help him become a better player -- potentially raising his draft stock and earning a more lucrative rookie contract next year.
He said the decision sends a message that might benefit other LSU underclassmen.
“I think it’s telling a lot of guys that maybe you might not get it in three years, maybe you might need that fourth year to really set yourself apart from a lot of guys and let people [see] what kind of player that you really want to be,” Collins said. “Be good to this program, at least, because they’ve been good to you.”