LSU Football: La'el Collins and the Top 5 Most Important Returning Tigers

Jake Martin@JakeMartinSECCorrespondent IIIJanuary 21, 2014

LSU Football: La'el Collins and the Top 5 Most Important Returning Tigers

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    La'el Collins' decision to play his senior season with the LSU Tigers was easily the most notable junior return in purple and gold.

    The two-time All-SEC left tackle will continue to build his storied career at LSU by blocking for a fourth, and perhaps fifth in Brandon Harris, LSU quarterback.

    Other notable juniors returning for their senior seasons are Jermauria Rasco and Connor Neighbors, and as influential as they will be in LSU's quest for a fourth national title, Collins' return outweighs both of them, which reinforces LSU's position as possessing the best offensive line in the SEC next year.

    Undeniably, he is the Tigers' best returning junior, but is he the best overall player (underclassmen included) returning to the squad? Gather 'round and let's discuss.

5. Danielle Hunter

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    In the opening weeks of the 2013 season, Danielle Hunter became somewhat of a hushed quip around the local media.

    With Hunter's veins popping out of his chiseled body, I heard one journalist mutter to colleagues, "I'm afraid he looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane."

    Hunter had the last laugh.

    Despite sharing the starting position with Jordan Allen at the start of the season, Hunter ended his sophomore campaign tied for second in sacks with three (behind fellow returning defensive end Jermauria Rasco), second in tackles for loss with eight and first among defensive linemen in tackles with 57.

    With deep athleticism on the back end and two outstanding pass-rushers at the front, it's safe to say LSU's defense is back to being its ferocious self.

    After Hunter (aka "Robocop") grows more fundamentally sound under John Chavis' tutelage, expect tremendous growth from him in 2014. He has no ceiling—it's possible he becomes the best defensive end in the conference when it's all said and done.

4. D.J. Welter

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    He's the man you love to hate, and his inclusion here will surely draw a complaint.

    "D.J. Welter on the top returning players list? You have finally gone off of the deep end, Jake," says an active Bleacher Report commenter (probably Chilibean).

    Hate all you want, but the numbers don't lie. Welter ended the season with the second most tackles on the roster with 80. Yeah, that's right: Welter is the returning leading tackler of all the defensive standouts.

    He had his struggles, specifically early in the season. However, he kept grinding and getting better with every performance. His breakout performances were his outings against great rushing teams like Auburn (11 tackles), Georgia (nine tackles), Alabama (nine tackles), Texas A&M (six tackles and he helped contain Johnny Manziel) and Arkansas (nine tackles).

    That's not even mentioning his strong inside presence against Iowa. Welter isn't versatile, but he's good at what LSU asks him to do. He can meet hard running teams with physical linebacker play, and "hate it or not," that will always be needed.

3. Terrence Magee

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    Get out your calculators, friends. (This is the first time I've used the words "calculators" and "friends" in the same sentence.) Let's do some good ol' math.

    The Tigers' returning offensive weapons touched the ball a combined 237 times out of 760 last season. That means of the runs, passes and receptions, only 31 percent of the returning contributors touched the ball in some particular capacity.

    That's what happens when you lose a 3,000-yard passer (Zach Mettenberger), 1,000-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham).

    Aid is on the way in the form of Leonard Fournette, Trey Quinn, Brandon Harris and others, but Tigers fans can rest easier knowing Terrence Magee will return in the backfield for 2014.

    He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns as a backup and will form a formidable duo with incoming freshman Fournette. So it's not a complete rebuild, per se. Hey, at least there's a pinch of experience returning at a skill position.

2. Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White

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    This is a two-for-one deal.

    2014 could bring flashbacks of 2011 with its depth in the defensive backfield. Anyone with common football knowledge can admit that 2011's talent pool at secondary (Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne, Eric Reid, Brandon Taylor, Tharold Simon and Ron Brooks) will likely never resurface again at LSU or any other school.

    Still, this unit has resembling talent. That begins at the corner positions with two true freshmen, who will be sophomores next season.

    The Tigers struggled against the pass earlier in the season, and it wasn't until Rashard Robinson shut down Texas A&M's Mike Evans that LSU started noticing it had something special on the outside.

    With Tre'Davious White and Robinson gaining valuable minutes in the last three games of the season, the Tigers gave up 186 passing yards per game. Wins and losses could very well start at the cornerback position next season, and the Tigers have two future All-SEC performers on opposite sides.

1. La'el Collins

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    Without Collins, LSU's offense would be one big question mark heading into 2014. Don't get me wrong—there are still plenty of unknowns (quarterback and wide receiver).

    With Collins though, the Tigers know one thing—they'll be able to pound the football. It's one thing to have to replace Trai Turner, but it's a completely different ordeal having to replace Turner and Collins.

    Fehoko Fanaika, Andy Dodd and Ethan Pocic should battle to replace Turner at right guard. I'm high on all three of these offensive line prospects, so I expect all of them to emerge from spring ball a lot better than they were heading in. That's what competition does.

    As for the rest of the line—Collins, Vadal Alexander, Elliot Porter and Jerald Hawkins have started more than 10 games in their careers, which means the Tigers will have a veteran group up front. And judging by the running lanes they provided for Jeremy Hill and Terrence Magee last season, Magee and Leonard Fournette should have no problem finding creases to run through.

    Do I have to say it for a 100th time on here? What the heck, you never can say it enough—the game is won in the trenches. Therefore, LSU's offensive line gives the Tigers a road to victory next season. Without Collins, that wouldn't be the case.