Alabama Football: Landon Collins Could Be the Key to the Crimson Tide's Defense

Christopher WalshCollege Football National ColumnistApril 16, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 02:  Landon Collins #26 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after intercepting the ball against the Oklahoma Sooners during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 2, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.  University of Alabama junior safety Landon Collins was already used to the trash-talking whenever he headed home to Louisiana. Now he’s getting it in a whole new way.

Collins, of course, ruffled some feathers in 2012 when he committed to join the rival Crimson Tide just a couple of days before Alabama shut out LSU in the BCS title game in New Orleans, 21-0. The prize prospect is from Geismar, about 20 miles down I-10 from Baton Rouge.

History repeated a few months ago when his brother, defensive end Gerald Willis III, signed with Florida, and Collins expected what followed.

“We were out training the other day and he gave me the Gator sign,” Collins said. “So it’s definitely started.”

Although that may be what Collins remembers most about this offseason, it was nonetheless an important offseason for the hard-hitting player who was once considered the No. 3 national prospect by 247Sports.com and the No. 6 overall talent by ESPN.

“It was fantastic,” he said. “I got to work a lot on my footwork and schemes and getting my eye directions right, so you can play quicker and move and react faster.”

Doing so is paramount for the Crimson Tide defense, which is essentially in the process of a yearlong overhaul of the entire secondary. None of the four starters from the 2013 season opener remain, and nearly every other spot could still be up for grabs during fall camp. 

Senior Jarrick Williams is the exception and set at star, which is Nick Saban’s term for the extra defensive back in nickel formation. He was credited with 10 starts there last season, while Collins had nine while filling in for suspended Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and injured Vinnie Sunseri.

“Landon's certainly a guy that is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it,” Saban said. “I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader, set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 02:  Derrick Woods #12 of the Oklahoma Sooners makes a catch over Landon Collins #26 of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 2, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“When he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him this spring.”

Helping him with that is defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who is back as the position coach after handling the interior linebackers the past three seasons. Before he was named the 2012 Assistant Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association, Smart was the 2009 Broyles Award winner as college football's top assistant coach while directly overseeing Alabama’s safeties.

“He just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position and he knows what’s going on; it’s his defense,” Collins said. So basically it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step by step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

The coach and player combination could be ideal, and there’s no reason to think that the former Parade All-American can’t be the next great Crimson Tide defensive back if he continues to improve.

Despite not making any starts the first month of last season, Collins was still credited with 70 tackles. That was second on the team, but also aided by his strong special teams play, with Saban describing him as a “beast.”

“He's gotten stronger, faster and has more knowledge of the defense,” Saban said.

“At times last year, he wasn't really sure of himself,” senior safety Nick Perry said. “But now he's fully confident and I think you'll see a different Landon Collins this season.”

This summer, Collins will be on the watch list for numerous awards, perhaps more than any other Crimson Tide defensive player, and touted as a preseason All-Southeastern Conference, if not All-American. 

Alabama's top two tacklers each year under Nick Saban
YearLeaderTacklesSecondTackles
2013C.J. Mosley108Landon Collins70
2012C.J. Mosley107Trey DePriest59
2011Dont'a Hightower85Mark Barron68
2010Mark Barron75Dont'a Hightower69
2009Rolando McClain105Mark Barron76
2008Rolando McClain95Rashad Johnson89
2007Rashad Johnson94Gilberry/Mustin80
University of Alabama

Yet it’s probably a good thing that he hasn’t led the defense in tackles during either of Alabama’s spring scrimmages. Unlike with some other schemes, Saban’s defense is geared more toward a player in the front seven being the primary tackler instead of a defensive back.

At the risk of making a statistical over-simplification, a pretty clear trend has emerged since the coach arrived in 2007: Every time an interior linebacker has led the Crimson Tide in tackling, they have played in a BCS bowl or better. Saban’s worst two years at the Capstone, 2007 and 2010, correspond to when that player was a safety.

Somewhat similarly, Collins had a career-high nine tackles in two games last season, against Auburn and Oklahoma, which were both losses (Note: C.J. Mosley led the Crimson Tide against the Tigers with 14 tackles, while fellow linebacker Trey DePriest was second with 11. Cornerback Eddie Jackson topped the team with 10 against the Sooners).

So while Alabama fans think that a special season may be in store for Collins, they also shouldn’t hope that the defense has to rely on him too much, or that he tries to be a one-man gang.

“Just keep playing as hard as I can and stay on top of things and stay focused because there’s a lot of stuff going on with social media about me,” said Collins, who remains a favorite target of LSU fans. “But I just have to stay focused on this team because we as a team are trying to get a national championship.”

  

Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

Follow @CrimsonWalsh