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ASU Football: A.J. McCollum making the most of his opportunities in senior year

The senior center saved the best for last.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Senior center A.J. McCollum stood in the halls of Sun Devil Stadium beyond the north end zone near the locker rooms. After practice, he’s careful with his hands, looking at them often and occasionally attempting to adjust them.

Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham walks by on the way to his Tuesday media availability. Noticing McCollum, he leans over and says to the assembled crowd; “After his career in football, he’s going to be a GQ model.”

McCollum retorts, “he’s going to be my agent,” but Graham is already gone.

In his second and final season with the program, the 6-foot-2, 311-pound center is playing the best football of his short Sun Devil career. In each of the past three weeks, he’s been named to the Pro Football Focus Pac-12 Team of the Week as the best-rated center in the conference.

But it didn’t start that way at ASU. And it definitely didn’t start that way in 2017.

Transferring from City College of San Francisco, McCollum arrived on campus during the summer before his first season in Tempe, fighting for the right to replace Nick Kelly as the man in the middle of the offensive line.

Shifting from junior college to Division I presents different challenges for different players, but arriving late in the cycle did more to McCollum.

“I had to learn the whole offense over summer,” McCollum said. “And then there’s the playing speed. Everyone plays a lot faster, they’re a lot bigger and stronger.”

He leaned on fellow lineman, especially redshirt juniors Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey, to help him get up to speed, something he feels continues today.

After an initial setback of a hamstring injury during fall camp, he won the job, starting his first career game in a win over Texas Tech. In all, McCollum played nine games at center a season ago, missing multiple games due to what were called personal reasons.

Entering this season, McCollum was the odds-on favorite to start at center again. But when Chris Thomsen left for TCU this offseason, ASU brought in Rob Sale to coach the offensive line. It wasn’t an easy transition for either.

“Sometimes he would swell up and get sensitive on me,” Sale said. “But, I guess, maybe at the same time, I understand him and he’s getting to understand me.”

Throughout preseason practices, McCollum saw his time on the first-team become inconsistent, replaced by redshirt senior Tyler McClure and sophomore Cohl Cabral.

Even into the season, Cabral started the third game of the season at center. But McCollum always found his way back into the lineup, no matter the challenge in front of him.

“I just worked harder, got in better shape and started doing what I was supposed to do,” McCollum said. “There’s nothing more you can do than start to act right.”

In addition to improving the physical side of his game, McCollum focused on his relationship with Sale and the coaching staff, making himself more available for coaching. And results have followed.

Now, with his career winding down, there are only so many opportunities left to prove himself to the coaching staff he’s constantly tried to impress in the year and a half since arriving in Tempe.

A win away from bowl eligibility, the Sun Devils trek to Oregon State Saturday, where McCollum will play in front of about 40 of his family and friends from his nearby hometown of Beaverton. But that’s not what matters at this point for McCollum.

Now, it’s all about what happens on the field.

“I love these guys,” McCollum said. “I want to go out winning games and go to the best bowl game we can.”