The honors and plaudits keep piling in for La'el Collins. This weekend, he was named the team's most valuable player, and he's already taken home the Jacobs Trophy for the SEC's top offensive lineman. He is a consensus first team All-American, a lock to go in the first round of the NFL Draft, and most importantly from LSU's point of view, he has earned an invite to the Senior Bowl.
Because let's be honest, LSU hasn't been sending a whole lot of its best players to the Senior Bowl recently. Connor Neighbors also earned a Senior Bowl invite, and he's the kind of player we have come to expect to be the LSU representative. Neighbors is a good player, and a proud tiger, but he's not the kind of transcendent talent La'el Collins is.
It's no secret LSU has a bit of a problem keeping talented players on campus. 17 players have declared early for the NFL draft over the past two years (18 if you count Tyrann Mathieu), and the talent drain has had an obvious effect on the program. Miles bemoaned so many early entrants last year, but his case to the underclassmen to stay was a negative case, not a positive one.
Miles could point to guys who left early and didn't get drafted (Chris Faulk, Michael Ford, Brad Wing, Anthony Johnson). He could tell the tale of guys who fell to the late rounds (Tharold Simon, Spencer Ware), or even guys who got the high draft slot and are either out of the NFL or unlikely to see a big payday (Sam Montgomery, Reuben Randle).
The problem with a negative story is that no one thinks they are the cautionary tale. Everyone thinks they are going to be the trio of Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, and Jarvis Landry, dominating the NFL as rookies. Or they think they are a late round steal like Trai Truner or Alfred Blue. I'll never be like the ones who didn't make it, thinks the guy who has known nothing but athletic success his entire life.
That's what makes La'el Collins so important to LSU. He finally gives Les Miles the ability to tell his players a positive story about coming back, with someone they know. Collins came back for his senior year, won all sorts of plaudits, and even improved his draft stock. He waited a year, but Collins made himself more money by delaying entry to the NFL.
It is important for Miles to be honest with his players as they make what is an incredibly important decision in their lives. He needs to have their trust and their best interest at heart. That's why it was so important for the staff to flip Jeremy Hill a day after he said he was returning. Miles can tell his players with a straight face that if he thinks they are ready to go, he will support and encourage that decision. Even better, they will likely believe him when he tries to tell a player he is not ready yet. Miles has banked all sorts of credibility with his players on that front.
Les Miles is likely going to sit down with his underclassmen over the next few weeks, if he hasn't already, and talk to them honestly about whether they will turn pro. Some guys are ready or if not, probably have raised their stock to the highest point it will ever reach. I'm looking at you, Jalen Collins. And Miles needs to tell the guys who are ready to play on Sundays that it is time to go and fulfill their dream. LSU is not in the business of holding people back from achieving their dreams.
That said, he also can tell certain players who are looking at the NFL that coming back is a good decision. Not because they might not get drafted or bust like a previous player, but by coming back they can achieve even more, and incidentally make themselves even more money. Just like La'el Collins did.
The case for coming back just got a little stronger. No longer is it a warning or cautionary tale, now it is a story of empowerment. That sells a whole lot better. Hopefully, the players who need to hear that story are listening. Players need to come back not because that's what is best for LSU, but because that is what is best for them.
Looking at you, Kwon.