TCU

Munday Made: How TCU’s L.J. Collier became a top NFL Draft prospect

A direct forceful rush by a defensive player in football.

That’s the definition of “bull rush,” according to Merriam-Webster, and it’s the thing L.J. Collier likes doing more than anything.

“I love that feeling cause I know offensive linemen don’t like to be hit in the mouth over and over,” Collier said. “I love to do that. I love the physicality of it. I love to be in your face the whole game. I’m not a player who is going to say much, but if you say something to me, I’m going to let you know it’s going to be all game.

“I’m going to get in your face and kick your ass the whole game. It’s that simple, really.”

Collier backs up that mindset and approach with what he put on film his final season at TCU, and is a significant reason he’s considered a possible first-round pick in this week’s NFL Draft.

To succeed at the highest level of football, players have to play with an edge. They have to have a nasty streak in them.

Collier has that.

Part of it comes from being raised in a small town. Munday, Texas, about two-and-a-half hours northwest of Fort Worth has a population less than 2,000 and, as Collier put it, “At 8 p.m., the streets are dead.” Only 25 people were in Collier’s high school graduating class.

Part of it comes from his desire to make his late mother, Ruby, proud.

Part of it comes from always having to prove himself, whether it be in how his recruiting process went with only one offer or waiting until his senior season to become a starter.

“If you’ve ever seen Munday, Texas, man,” Collier said, smiling, “all this really shows you is how God works and stuff like that. I’m really blessed to have this opportunity.

“It’s an honor to be in the position I am in and be considered as highly as I am.”

Finding Munday

Saturdays in the fall is what everybody lives for in college football.

But, for TCU co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, the true joy is found in the less glamorous parts of the job such as the days and nights spent driving the backroads of Texas.

Occasionally you’ll run into an L.J. Collier in one of those forgotten Texas towns.

“I love it. That’s the best part of the job,” Cumbie said. “To really out-work people and go into places like Munday, that nobody is going to and to see the talent that’s there, it’s a lot of fun.”

Cumbie himself flew under radars as a standout quarterback at Snyder High School, settling for a walk-on offer at Texas Tech rather than playing at a smaller school such as Tarleton State.

So he is familiar with how much talent is in these smaller communities.

Collier played in the same district as James Washington, a Stamford High product who went on to Oklahoma State and was a second-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers last year.

Stamford’s quarterback at the time was Hagen Hutchinson, who went on to play at Midwestern State. Munday’s quarterback, Dee Paul, was a great high school player who briefly played at Texas Tech.

“It’s pretty amazing how much talent was right in that little area for a two-year stretch,” Cumbie said. “But Munday has always had great athletes. It just kind of goes in cycles, but for that level of football, there’s definitely been some players.”

Cumbie knew that Collier was something special from the start.

He first saw Collier his sophomore season when Munday defeated Tenaha for the Class 1A, Division II state championship at AT&T Stadium in 2012.

Cumbie, a Texas Tech assistant at the time, wasn’t there to watch Collier specifically, but that became a defining moment. Collier was the star of the game, returning an interception for a touchdown and registering four tackles-for-loss.

“L.J. just kept catching my attention in that game as a sophomore,” Cumbie said. “He was just one of those players that stood out at that level. He made plays and was very active. He was definitely a dominant player at that level, and you could tell he was going to grow and get so much bigger and stronger.

“You knew he was going to continue to improve and improve.”

Collier did just that and, by his senior season, became a do-it-all player for Munday. He played defensive end. He played tight end. He kicked off. Heck, he even played some running back.

“He never left the field his senior season,” Cumbie said.

Collier originally committed to play for Texas Tech, but he had to improve his ACT score. That’s when Cumbie, still working at Tech, contacted one of Collier’s high school teachers, Christel Shahan, to arrange for more tutoring sessions.

“We spent many hours together,” said Shahan, who taught math and science at the high school. “We did a lot of after-school tutoring and he’d come up a couple times a week during the summer.”

In the end, Collier didn’t land at Tech. Collier said Tech “dropped him,” and his college career was uncertain.

But Cumbie left Tech for a job on Gary Patterson’s staff at TCU, and the Frogs opened their doors to Collier.

“When Tech dropped me, Coach P and Coach Cumbie offered me,” Collier said. “I’m forever grateful. I definitely went to a better place.”

Munday is a powerhouse for its level of football, but a player landing at a Power Five program is still quite a feat for anyone in that town.

As Shahan said of Munday: “Nobody in Fort Worth or Dallas knows where it is, and only half the people in Abilene or Wichita Falls that are within an hour of us know where it is.

“But it’s a great place to be.”

Knuckle Up

TCU proved to be the right place for Collier and his development as a football player.

He went from a three-star recruit out of high school and developed into an All-Big 12 defensive end last season. It wasn’t easy, though, on or off the field.

Collier lost his mother, Ruby, to cancer after his freshman season, something that has motivated him to succeed on and off the field.

“My mom was my biggest fan,” Collier said. “She would’ve loved to be here today and see all of this. That’s why I use it as motivation. I know she’s always with me in my heart. I miss her a lot, so I use that however I can to push through and prove myself.”

Collier did that through all the trying times at TCU.

On the field, he had to work his way up the depth chart. Collier redshirted his freshman season and didn’t record a sack until his sophomore season in 2016.

Collier found himself playing more and more his sophomore and junior seasons, but didn’t become a starter until last season. He made the most of it, registering career highs in sacks (six) and tackles-for-loss (11.5).

Pro Football Focus rated Collier as the Big 12’s top pass rusher last season.

“When I first came out of high school, the goal was just to get on the field here and play,” Collier said. “And be the best college player I could be.”

It’s safe to say Collier accomplished that with what he did his senior season. Collier and fellow defensive end Ben Banogu are significant reasons the Frogs salvaged what appeared to be a lost season by becoming bowl eligible and winning the Cheez-It Bowl.

Off the field, Collier earned his degree, something his mother wanted more than anything. Shahan, who has become more of a motherly figure for Collier since his mother passed, emphasizes that as much as the football accolades.

“Getting his degree was the No. 1 goal,” Shahan said. “That’s what his mom wanted, and I had to remind him a time or two when it got tough, that’s what your mom told you.”

For Collier, it serves as another reminder of how far he’s come.

“People said I couldn’t graduate, that I wouldn’t last a year here,” Collier said. “That’s just a big driving force for me. I proved what I had to prove.”

Cumbie had a front-row seat for it all. He didn’t work hands-on with Collier, especially last season with the offense struggling and cycling through multiple quarterbacks, but he understands Collier’s path better than anyone.

For a coach, nothing tops seeing a player grow and develop and mature from a sophomore in high school to a college graduate to a NFL prospect.

“Seeing guys develop and grow is the best part of what we get to do,” Cumbie said. “Fortunately I’ve been able to stay the course here at TCU, and see L.J. come in and grow and really mature and develop as a player. It’s exciting to see the opportunity he has from the football standpoint.

“But to see him graduate from a place like TCU ... coming from Munday and that community there, that’s certainly what our job is all about. To be a small, small, small part of that, it’s just fun to watch. These last five years have been a lot of fun.”

Hello, NFL

Few players have boosted their NFL Draft stock as much as Collier since the end of the season.

Collier had a standout showing at the Senior Bowl, put up solid numbers at the NFL Combine, including running a sub-5.0-second 40-yard dash, and has made the rounds on several pre-draft visits with teams including the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams.

Collier has been mentioned as a borderline first-round talent. Hall of Famer and longtime Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt believes Collier will be selected between Nos. 25-45.

“That young man from Munday -- M-U-N-D-A-Y -- I think is going to be a really good pass rusher,” said Brandt, who serves as a SiriusXM NFL Radio analyst.

“I think he will be a good, good NFL player because he’s got a really good, quick burst off the line of scrimmage. And, for a guy as big as he is, he ran under 5-flat [40-yard dash]. That’s a good place to start. A very, very competitive player.”

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Collier ranked as his No. 10 pass rusher in this year’s deep class.

“He plays balanced and alert with the physical mindset that translates well in the run game, projecting as a rotational defensive end with the upside to be more,” Brugler said.

Collier, who measured 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, feels he’s just tapping his potential. This is a guy who has just one year of starting experience under his belt.

Collier is confident he’ll fit in with whatever team takes him, and he’ll make a positive impact on and off the field.

“I’m an outgoing person, fun to be around,” Collier said. “I’m not annoying. I’m a people person and get along with people very well.”

The only people Collier may annoy is offensive linemen. That’s not a bad thing, of course.

“When I get on the field, I’m a different person,” Collier said, smiling. “I lock in and I’m ready to go. I’ve always been the meanest guy on the field and that’s how I handle it -- being the meanest guy.”

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