TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It wasn't that long ago that a fresh-faced Landon Collins committed to Alabama in one of the strangest announcements ever recorded on national television.
You know how it went: The five-star safety from Louisiana says, "Roll Tide Roll!" and pulls on a pair of Alabama gloves while his mother, April Justin, looks on in disappointment. Every one of Collins' 15 friends and family on stage -- that is, all but Justin -- applaud. And in the few weeks until national signing day, everyone wonders whether he'll flip to LSU. But he doesn't. He enrolls at Alabama and for the next year or so we catch only glimpses of the athlete who ignited such a firestorm of emotion.
That Landon Collins seems long gone now. His body has filled out. His hair has grown some, too. His mustache and chin-strap beard aren't trimmed up neatly like before. The talented special teams gunner fighting for reps is suddenly a veteran in a secondary hoping to return to its former glory. The drama of the past, the questions about his mother and LSU and his very public commitment, are now anecdotes in a larger story about one of the best safeties in the country, a First Team Preseason Coaches All-SEC selection and future NFL draft pick.
"Me and my dad sat down and talked about it before I ever signed to come here," Collins said. "He said by my junior year I'd be starting. I was like, 'No, I'll be playing my freshman year and get my starting job as a sophomore.' We didn't know the outcome, but by God's grace that's what we did.
"I just took it and ran with it."
In a way, both father and son were right. Collins played on special teams as a freshman and was expected to come off the bench as a sophomore. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, two upperclassmen, were entrenched at safety. But Clinton-Dix missed time sorting out an issue with the NCAA, and right as he returned, Sunseri tore his ACL. Collins stepped in, started nine games and filled up the stat sheet, finishing second on the team in tackles, first in passes defended and tied for second in interceptions and forced fumbles.
With Clinton-Dix and Sunseri off to the NFL and former starting cornerback Deion Belue gone as well, Collins is now the most recognizable face of Alabama's secondary. In fact, he might be the most indispensable player on Alabama's entire defense.
"He's been probably a key guy in a leadership role, defensively for this team in terms of how he's embraced that role and done a really good job," said coach Nick Saban. "The guy practices hard every day, works hard every day."
"I see a guy who's really hungry for this season, a guy who goes out and gets better and better every day" said fellow safety Jarrick Williams, who lauded Collins' speed and ability to tackle. "There's no slacking with him, it's full every day."
Amari Cooper, Alabama's star receiver, said you have to keep an eye on him.
"He's a fast guy getting to the ball," he said. "Like on a reverse, he's coming down really fast. He's always near the ball, so you have to be very aware of him."
Instead of answering questions about his infamous commitment, Collins is now answering for a defense expected to be one the best in the country, despite losing more than half of its starters from last season. On Monday, he talked up rookies, praised the defensive line and assessed the play of another hotly contested recruit, linebacker Reuben Foster. He even answered the tough questions like whether the defense has anything to prove after struggling against hurry-up, no-huddle offenses last season.
His response: "Definitely."
"We've always been known as a defense that's unstoppable [sic]," he said. "You can't run the ball or throw the ball on us. That's how we want to portray our defense like we did in previous years."
We'll know right away whether Collins and Alabama can paint that familiar picture.
The Crimson Tide's opponent to open the season, West Virginia, may have won only four games last season, but coach Dana Holgorsen's offense is potent, having averaged 26.3 points and 410.8 yards per game. It likes to push the tempo, too, as last season it averaged 22.8 seconds of possession per play, 26th quickest in the country.
Collins' leadership, as much as his talent, will be critical to Alabama's success. How he handles Saturday's fast-paced environment will be an indicator of how the defense will fair in the weeks to come.
But talking to Collins, you don't sense any pressure. After having gone through so much already, he's excited about what's ahead.
"Having these guys look up to me and the expectations I have for myself, I think it's going to be a great year," he said.