TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He was the rare five-star prospect who had to wait. When Landon Collins, the former top-rated safety in the country, got to the University of Alabama more than a year ago, he was told to be patient. There were others in front of him who had been there longer and earned their spots. Collins would play sparingly and learn the ropes as a freshman, but he wouldn't be an immediate star.
Collins didn't buck. He made a name for himself on special teams and stayed quiet off the field. He knew what he was getting into when he signed with Alabama. Here in Nick Saban's backyard, blue-chip recruits are sown like ears of corn, plucked from the stalk only when the time is right.
He's still a tad green, but Collins' time is now. Thanks to a two-game suspension to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and a season-ending injury to Vinnie Sunseri, Collins has gone from reserve to starter in the blink of an eye. Suddenly we're seeing the talent of a young prospect turn into the promise of a full-time starter.
On Monday, Saban exited one door and Collins entered another. Roughly 15 minutes after Saban announced that Sunseri would miss the rest of the year, Collins walked into the media room of the Mal Moore Athletic Facility and was surrounded by reporters. "With Sunseri gone, what does it mean for the defensive backs?" he was asked.
"We have to step it up," Collins said matter-of-factly. "He was a big loss for our defense. Now and the student leadership needs to step up and the players need to step up that are taking his place."
Meaning he, a true sophomore with only two career starts under his belt, is part of leading one of the best defenses in college football. Alabama enters this week with the fewest touchdowns allowed in the country (eight) and ranks in the top 10 nationally in pass defense, rush defense, yards per game and first downs.
But Collins, who has felt the weight of national attention before as a recruit, sees Sunseri's loss as the fulfillment of an opportunity he'd been waiting for since he arrived in Tuscaloosa as a freshman.
"What it means to me is I'm excited," he said. "It's been humbling and I've been staying at it trying to work as hard as I can to get to where I am now. I'm thankful for it, I just take every advantage I can get."
That doesn't mean it will be easy. There's no replacing Sunseri's leadership and big-play ability. He was the voice of the secondary, making all the calls on the back end of the defense. When Alabama needed a play to be made, Sunseri was often the one to do it. He was a rock, an anchor to young defensive backs like Collins.
As Collins said, "We lost a leader." When Alabama takes the field Saturday against Tennessee, it will be without a player Saban called "an outstanding player and a really good person, good leader."
"We lost a very valuable player on our team," Collins said. "He was our play-caller and our playmaker, too. He made a lot of big plays for us. A standout player. We looked up to him. If we didn't know the call I could look to my left and say, 'Vinnie, what do we do?' "
Collins will have Clinton-Dix to lean on, but more of the responsibility is on his shoulders now. Teammates have raved about his abilities. Sunseri called him a "bullet" who "goes hard every single play." Clinton-Dix said in August that Collins was "at the top of the peak" and lauded his physical style. The praise has been universal. He's long looked the part of a five-star athlete.
But Collins knows he'll have to be more than be quick and strong and fast. He'll have to be a complete player -- he'll have to be like Sunseri -- if Alabama is going to reach the national championship for a third straight year.
"I'll bring the same type of passion Vinnie brought to the game," Collins said. "Vinnie played hard and gave 150 percent every game, every play, every down. I'm going to bring the same thing. Looking up to him, he played with passion and determination and a will not to give up. That's what I'm going to do for the team."