LSU offensive lineman La'el Collins' patience could soon pay off

BATON ROUGE, La. -- La'el Collins could be cashing NFL paychecks right now, but LSU's senior left tackle said he does not regret returning for his senior season. He soon could have reason to feel good about becoming one of the rare Tigers to put off the pros when becoming an underclassman draft pick was a legitimate possibility.

LSU coaches Les Miles and Frank Wilson both predicted recently that Collins could become a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. And multiple draft analysts seem to agree.

"I think he's a dominant player in a dominant league," Miles said. "I think he looks and can defend himself at the left tackle and left guard spot. Anytime you start looking at guys that can play left guard and tackle, that's pretty strong stuff.

"The point is is what guys need and how they fit. A guy that can play left tackle and left guard, or a guy that is certainly a left tackle or a left-side guy, it just really increases his worth."

One of Collins' stated goals in returning for another year was to prove that he could play left tackle in the pros. He'd shifted there from guard in 2013 and wanted to prove he could handle either spot in the NFL in order to maximize his earning potential.

Collins believes he has done that this fall, when he has been one of the most consistent performers on the team.

"I feel like I kind of established that I can play tackle on the next level, but hey, wherever a team wants to play me at, that's what I'm willing to do," Collins said. "So it doesn't even matter to me. But just the ability to be able to play inside and outside is always a great thing, and right to left side doesn't even matter to me.

"I just try to continue to get better where I'm at right now, though, and that's left tackle. I'm just going out and working hard and just trying to make sure I can get everything that I can out of playing this position."

Apparently Collins and his coaches are not alone in that opinion.

Had he jumped to the pros after his junior season, Collins seemed likely to be selected late in the first round or in the middle rounds of the draft. However, the most recent prospect rankings from NFLDraftScout.com, ESPN's Scouts Inc. and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. all include Collins among the top 20 players.

"I believe he's played tremendously, especially compared to last year," right tackle Jerald Hawkins said. "He just seemed to upgrade his game, especially being with Coach [Jeff] Grimes."

The newest rankings from Scouts Inc. and Todd McShay rank Collins as the No. 16 overall prospect and No. 3 offensive tackle in the upcoming draft class. Collins said he has already been invited to participate in two postseason all-star games, including the Senior Bowl, although he had not accepted an invitation as of last week.

"I just kind of take it one week at a time, especially now," Collins said. "I definitely know in the future I'm going to have to take on everything that's coming my way, but I'm just taking it and just trying to embrace my last couple of weeks that I have here and just enjoy it, enjoy it with my teammates."

His time at LSU is winding toward its conclusion. After last Saturday's loss at Arkansas, LSU is 7-4 and far out of the conversation for the SEC title Collins hoped to claim when he decided to play one more college season. He has two games left as a Tiger: the regular-season finale at Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night and what will be a mid-level bowl game.

That is far from what Collins envisioned, and yet he will be richer -- figuratively and financially -- for having spent one more season at LSU. Collins believes his time spent with first-year offensive line coach Grimes has benefited him, and he seems to treasure having played a full college career at his hometown college.

"I've been just overwhelmed with falling in love with this place. Ever since I got here, it was always just a great place for me," Collins said. "LSU has just been nothing but good for me. I love the program, I love my coaches, I've learned a lot this year.

"So by me learning so much this year, it really made me realize, ‘Wow, I really wasn't ready to move onto the next level.' So that's why I never really can think about it."