TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Landon Collins was already thinking about the game.
He stood in the media room at Bryant-Denny Stadium after Alabama’s 45-10 win over Tennessee, where Collins returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown. His coach and teammates were answering questions about the LSU game the same way, citing the 24-hour rule or saying the open week would be focused on themselves, not the Tigers.
But Collins was already looking ahead.
“They tried to throw me in the dirt when I made the commitment (to Alabama). Getting a chance to play against them and actually be on the field and knock some heads with them, it’s a big thing to me,” Collins told reporters.
“I just want to be able to dominate them like we’ve been doing in the past four weeks.”
Collins only played sparingly in Alabama’s 21-17 win over the Tigers last year. But he will play a critical role, starting at strong safety, for the No. 1 Crimson Tide on Saturday in a game that means so much more to the New Orleans native.
“I’m pretty sure his blood’s gonna be flowing a little bit more than everyone else,” Alabama senior linebacker C.J. Mosley said.
Coming out of Dutchtown High, where he moved after Hurricane Katrina, Collins was widely considered the top player in the state.
“(Collins) knew he wanted to play in college and did everything he could to prepare himself for that. Just a very good athlete, great athlete that was a hard worker,” Dutchtown coach Benny Saia said. “He has a dream that he’s chasing.”
247Sports and ESPN rated Collins the top safety in the country, and LSU and Alabama were hot on his trail. The Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year had watched plenty of Alabama-LSU games growing up and visited Alabama for the 2011 “Game of the Century” in Tuscaloosa.
“The best two teams. No. 1 and No. 2 in the championship,” Collins said Tuesday. “I didn’t know who to pick out of them. I made the best decision for myself and my opportunity, and I’m doing great where I’m at now.”
Collins has certainly made his presence known since arriving in Tuscaloosa.
He played primarily on special teams last season and continued that role into 2013. This year, he also played on defense as the “Money” — the sixth defensive back in passing situations. But his special teams play is what opened eyes.
Collins always seems to be the first one down the field on punts and kickoffs, and Alabama coach Nick Saban called him a “demon” on special teams. Against Arkansas, the Razorbacks routinely double-teamed Collins on special teams.
Then, a suspension and an injury forced him into a starting safety role.
He filled in for free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix against Georgia State and Kentucky while Clinton-Dix served a suspension for reportedly accepting a loan from a strength and conditioning coach.
When Clinton-Dix returned for the game against Arkansas, free safety Vinnie Sunseri went down with a knee injury, and Collins has played in his place since.
He is second on the team in tackles with 34, many of which came on special teams. He also has a forced fumble and an interception.
Collins said he knows five positions in Alabama’s defense.
“You don’t really like to do that to players during the season where they can’t stay in positions and develop continuity,” Saban said. “But he certainly did a great job for the team in doing what he did, and it worked out well for us.”
Still, Collins doesn’t think he’ll ever stop hearing about his commitment.
He sat on the ESPN set at the Under Armour All-American Game with a pair of LSU gloves, a pair of Alabama gloves and the eyes of the country on him.
He donned the Alabama gloves and held them up to the camera. But to his left, his mother, April Justin, put her hand to her forehead and shook her head.
“I feel LSU is the better place for him to be,” Justin told ESPN.
Despite the commitment, which drew ire from many more LSU fans than Justin, Collins said he still feels support from back home when he takes the field Saturday.
“They’re cheering me on,” he said on Tuesday. “Some of them say, ‘Even though it’s the home state and I got LSU on (my shirt), I still got 26 in my heart.’ ”
Collins was back in New Orleans last weekend during Alabama’s open week watching his brother Gerald Willis, another top recruit from New Orleans.
While there, he ran into LSU sophomore cornerback Dwayne Thomas.
Collins said Thomas told him that when Alabama lines up to punt, Thomas will line up against him.
Thomas said he promised to stick to Collins, too.
“OK,” Collins said. “We’ll see.”