- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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The rivalry between Alabama and LSU was taken to another level when former LSU coach Nick Saban took over for the Crimson Tide in 2007. The national championship he won with the Tigers was still fresh in fans’ minds, and now he was headed to coach an SEC West rival. It energized the rivalry on the field, but the bigger impact would be felt on the recruiting trail.
LSU was used to taking all the top players in Louisiana without much competition from other schools. But Saban had other ideas. He immediately targeted his old stomping grounds and made the fertile state a priority for both the present and the future.
Alabama began to have moderate success in the Bayou State, plucking a four-star here and there. It wasn’t enough to cause LSU much concern, though, at least until the recruitment of Landon Collins.
The five-star safety lived just down the road from Baton Rouge. He went to the same high school as former LSU star Eric Reid. He had that look of another physical playmaker in the Tigers’ secondary, similar to Reid. All signs pointed to him to staying in state and playing for LSU.
In the past, schools might have conceded Collins to LSU, but not Alabama, not Saban. He made the Louisiana native a priority in the 2012 class. Collins was Saban’s right-hand man during the Tide’s camp, an experience unlike any other for a high school kid. He visited Tuscaloosa for the showdown between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama.
But when it came time for Collins to make his decision at the Under Armour All-America Game, most people still felt he would choose LSU. Among those who thought so was his own mother, April Justin. She was by his side when he announced his choice on national television.
When Collins put on the Alabama hat and flashed the script "A" gloves to the camera, Justin showed a look of surprise and dismay. She clearly wanted her son to stay close to home, but instead he chose to play for the Tide.
Looking back, it was one of the more memorable moments in recruiting history. But it was about more than a mother’s reaction. It signaled the end of LSU’s dominance in its own state. Stealing the top recruit in Louisiana, a recruit who lived so close to campus, proved that Alabama was here to stay. It took the recruiting side of the rivalry to the next level.
Now, two years later, it’s time for Gerald Willis III (New Orleans/Edna Karr), Collins' younger brother, to make his college decision.
It’s unlikely he follows in his brother’s footsteps, as the Tide are not among his top schools at the moment, but you can’t count out family. Just like his brother, Willis plans to announce his decision at the Under Armour game in front of a television audience, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to make the same choice.
“I’m always going to be Landon Collins’ little brother, but I just want to be my own man, be my own name, leave my own legacy somewhere,” Willis said. “That’s my goal.”
9dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough