FRISCO, Texas - It was a great relief last week to see Dak Prescott on the field participating in OTAs after a significant ankle injury last October and ensuing surgery. But if the team is to keep Prescott upright and healthy for 17 games in 2021, they may well be relying on the return of La'el Collins, who missed essentially the entirety of last season with a hip injury.
Collins is back on the field after months of rehab along with Tyron Smith, who was also stricken with a season-long injury in 2020. After Thursday's OTA practice, Collins spoke to the media about the injury that cost him last season and what it feels like to be back.
"It was something that had been lingering for a while," Collins said of his hip issues coming into last season. "I couldn't get down to what was going on. I kept working on it and it came down to the point where something had to be done."
Collins and the Cowboys held out until Week 3 of last year before having hip surgery, and the decision was not one that came easy.
"It was tough," Collins said. "I kept going back and forth with myself. If I had to get the surgery done I was going to have to miss the season. It wasn't something I was looking forward to at all. But it was something that had to be done. Now, I feel good. And I'm ready to rock."
Now, Collins says he is more or less participating in everything during OTAs, but he is limited when he competes directly against defenders as he eases out of rehab and into game action.
"To be honest with you, I'm just starting to feel like myself," Collins said on Thursday. "And it feels good. I'm working overtime with treatment and physical therapy to make sure this goes right. All the hard work is definitely paying off."
But all that hard work wasn't spent solely on recovering from an injury. Collins also used the opportunity to reshape his body a little bit for the 2021 season. He claims that he currently weighs 313 pounds, which would be the lowest he's ever played at. He hopes to shave another few pounds off around training camp. He last played at 323 pounds.
"That's definitely the mindset," Collins said. "Stay as lean as possible and keep a lot of muscle. I learned a lot about nutrition and what I need to put in my body and what I don't need to put in my body. You're going to have to make those changes so you can get everything that you need out of your body."
A year away from the game was difficult for Collins, physically and mentally. But he experienced much of the process with the quarterback that he was supposed to be protecting.
"Me and Dak have been at it with Britt [Brown, Associate Athletic Trainer/Director of Rehabilitation] all offseason," Collins said. "Even when it was tough he pushed through. I remember him from the first day [of his rehab] to now, it's like night and day."
Everyone knows that the Cowboys' success hinges on Prescott. But Prescott's ability to do what he's great at will require Collins being out there, healthy and protecting his quarterback's right side. Come training camp, the right tackle expects to have zero restrictions on the field. By Week 1, he expects to be keeping his quarterback's pocket intact.
"I'll protect him at all costs," Collins said.