Nothing is better than landing a blue-chip prospect from high school that pans out from the day he steps on campus. LSU football has enjoyed a number of those types in recent years.
But it doesn’t always work that way.
Proof comes in the person of Jalen Collins, a cornerback who played as a redshirt freshman in 2012 – even garnering Freshman All-SEC honors – then was largely M.I.A. as a defender in 2013 before bursting back onto the scene in 2014, ultimately becoming a second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons.
Heading into a new season, which Tigers have a chance to be the next Jalen Collins?
Four players leap to the forefront of this conversation. Some of them have traveled nearly identical paths as Collins in terms of playing time and spots on the depth chart while others have had to completely wait their turn, career reserves to this point.
They all share a common denominator, though. More is expected from them in 2015 as all are entering at least their third year in the program.
Candidate One: DE Lewis Neal
Neal’s journey to date has probably been the most similar to that of Collins. He impressed the staff as a true freshman, earning some platoon playing time at end alongside Tashawn Bower. He finished 2013 with seven tackles, 0.5 sack and one quarterback hurry in 10 games. His relative disappearing act in 2014 was due to taking one for the team. Neal moved inside to tackle to help fill a need as an interior rusher on passing downs. He played in all 13 games and notched just three tackles, 1.5 for loss.
Now Neal, a junior, is poised to join Bower as LSU’s starting defensive ends in year one under position coach Ed Orgeron. He has a very high ceiling when it comes to getting after the quarterback, but Neal may have to tack on some mass to adequately defend the run. Otherwise he may have a tough time staying on the field on first downs. Still, after a relatively slept-on season (think Collins in 2013), Neal has real break-out potential under the tutelage of Orgeron, who loves his motor and low pad level.
Candidate Two: OLB Deion Jones
Jones also began his LSU career with a bang, a true freshman dynamo on special teams who produced when given chances on defense. The Jesuit product finished that 2012 campaign with 23 tackles, three for loss and three quarterback hurries. But he’s never quite upped the ante on his production, always behind better, more experienced options at linebacker (Lamin Barrow, Kwon Alexander). In his last two seasons combined, Jones has registered 42 tackles, 4.5 for loss and two quarterback hurries.
Like Neal, however, Jones is expected to move into the starting lineup for the first time in purple and gold this fall. His elite quickness will serve Jones well as a weakside linebacker, able to regularly knife into the backfield for ball-carriers and, under new coordinator Kevin Steele, rush the quarterback (something linebackers didn’t do a ton under former defensive boss John Chavis). Jones could be a prime example of what can happen to a program player that stays the course and waits his turn.
Candidate Three: DL Maquedius Bain
The Florida native is entering year three at LSU, but unlike the two candidates above, he took a redshirt season. Along with Greg Gilmore, Frank Herron and Christian Lacouture, Bain was part of a 2013 class of defensive linemen expected to revitalize the tackle position for 3-4 years. So far only LaCouture, who enters 2015 as a third-year starter, has stuck.
Bain can change that refrain this season. He’s already been given a leg up on the likes of Gilmore and Herron, moved by Orgeron to defensive end, where he started the spring game but will enter Fall Camp in August as the third end behind Bower and Neal. His production prior to this spring has been limited. In Bain’s redshirt freshman season he played in 10 games, totaling six tackles and one pass break-up. If he can do more at a new position this season, Bain can put himself on a Collins-like path of redemption.
Candidate Four: OL K.J. Malone
The son of NBA Hall-of-Famer Karl is the greenest of the four candidates. Malone, like Bain, took a redshirt in 2013. When that redshirt came off Malone was strictly a reserve offensive lineman in 2014, not even playing regularly on the field goal/PAT team. He finished last season having played in five of 13 games, only twice in SEC play – versus Kentucky (in a blowout) and at Arkansas (when two starting linemen were down with injuries).
Now Malone is seen by many as a viable starting option at offensive guard. Position coach Jeff Grimes shuffled his first five around this spring, but he ended on a combination of tackles Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander, center William Clapp and guards Ethan Pocic and Josh Boutte. Malone’s path to the field is likely to go through Boutte. If he can beat him out in August, Malone, who Les Miles loves, can make a name for himself in a run-heavy offense after a few years on the shelf.
Who will be the next Jalen Collins?
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