Thursday, January 27, 2022

Why Will Anderson Jr. may be Alabama’s key to winning its second straight national championship

It’s been almost a month, so the bummer is wearing off for Will Anderson Jr. The College Football Playoff National Championship should have been enough by now to overshadow Anderson not being a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Still.

“I gave Will a couple of days before I spoke to him about it,” said Clifford Fedd, the Alabama sophomore linebacker’s former coach at Dutchtown High School. “I know Will Anderson. I know him very well. I know where his mind will go. I know where is head space will go. It was not in a bad place, but it wasn’t where it needed to be.”

About a month ago, Fedd had what he called a “harsh, grown conversation” with Anderson, perhaps the game’s supreme edge rusher. It was then he dialed up the metaphor that has endured to this week before the title game: Anderson’s body, the coach said, is like an engine.

“As long as the body of the vehicle has a strong engine, it doesn’t matter what kind of rims and tires it has on it,” Fedd said. “Our vehicle is never in park. We don’t have a park button. We don’t have review mirrors, and we don’t have reverse.”

That comparison stuck with Anderson when (some believe) he was overlooked for the Heisman. The defensive player selected as a finalist ahead of him, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, finished second in the voting. Anderson finished fifth with the third-most first-place votes.

“[He] really opened my eyes,” Anderson said of Fedd. “It was like, ‘Man, you were right.’ As long as I’ve got my engine, that’s all I need for my car to keep going. Anything that comes along with it makes it look nice.”

There was social media outrage in some quarters over the “snub”. It may have been a simple case of Anderson splitting votes with teammate and eventual Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young. Whatever the case, it spawned the engine analogy that is becoming as overwrought this week as Anderson is consistent.

And it’s not like he was overlooked. Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean won the Butkus Award this season. Anderson won the Nagurski Award (defensive player of the year).

Everybody good?

“You didn’t get the invite,” Fedd said to Anderson. “Good, OK, thank you. We’re moving on. Now, he’s going to get defensive player of the game in the Cotton Bowl, which he did. I told him to be an influencer, be an encourager and in the meantime go win a championship. You can’t let people keep you in a bad mental spot because they might feel you got cheated. And you might have gotten cheated.”

Fedd gets a lot of calls from media these days. The coach at Dutchtown in Hampton, Georgia, is more than happy to talk about his prodigy. As a senior, Anderson had 22 sacks for Dutchtown, which is about 40 miles south of Atlanta.

Anderson comes from a tight-knit family that features five nurturing sisters who have both spoiled and teased their sibling. There is Shanice, Shawnta, Chyna, Endia and Teria, who – as told to Sports Illustrated — once locked her brother in a dryer.  

Where did you get Chick-fil-A today, Fedd has asked Anderson?

“Shanice bought it,” the linebacker said.

Where did you get Chick-fil-A today?

“My sister Chyna bought it,” Anderson replied.

Where’d you get that nice suit?

“My older sister got it for me,” Anderson said.

And so it goes for the star who was a unanimous first-team All-American and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Anderson became the first true freshman to start at linebacker at Alabama under coach Nick Saban. It took him until his eighth game in 2020 to get his first sack. Since then, he has 23.5 sacks in 21 games.

The word “unblockable” has been used more than once.

“I’m a car,” Anderson said. “The only thing you need to get going is that engine. Anything else that comes with it, any accolades … for instance, me getting that Nagurski Trophy, that was just the rims on my car.”

Any consternation should be diffused with the passage of time and reality. Alabama is still playing, and Anderson is still putting together a generational season. His 17.5 sacks lead the country, as do his 34.5 tackles for loss. Akron, as a team, had 37 tackles for loss. Anderson has more sacks than 16 entire teams this season.

The last FBS player to get as many as 20 sacks in a season was Louisville‘s Elvis Dumervil in 2005.  Reaching that total should be a concern for Georgia in the CFP National Championship.

Anderson already has three sacks and four tackles for loss in the postseason against Georgia and Cincinnati. He sacked Bulldogs QB Stetson Bennett twice and forced him into two interceptions in the SEC Championship Game.

Not yet two years into his career, Anderson is edging his way onto the list of all-time linebacking greats at Alabama. Under Saban alone there have been Reggie Ragland, Rolando McClain, C.J. Mosley and Reuben Foster. Past greats include Lee Roy Jordan, Cornelius Bennett and Woodrow Lowe.

But any comparison at Alabama starts with Derrick Thoma,s whose freakishness 33 years ago remains legend. It was in 1988 that Thomas set the unofficial record with 27 sacks. The NCAA didn’t start keeping the stat until 2000.  

Thomas took over the NFL while on the Kansas City Chiefs, the team that drafted him in the first round in 1989. Since 2000, only five players have more career sacks than Thomas’ 126.5.

Anderson knows nothing of Thomas. The best comparison for this 20-year-old is the Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.

“He’s very violent,” Anderson said.  

It might be way too early less than two years into his college career, but there is something about Anderson’s game that equates to Thomas: the first step, the strength, the impact on the game.

Anderson has picked up at least one sack in eight consecutive games. His four sacks against Mississippi State made him only the third player in Alabama history to post that many in a single game. He was the first to do it since Thomas in 1988, who actually had five against Texas A&M that year.

“He’s one of the heavier-handed guys at his size for an outside linebacker that I’ve been able to be around as far as striking blocks and recreating the line of scrimmage,” Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding said of Anderson. “… I think one of his best traits is how physical he is at the point of attack and knocking guys back and being able to play the run.

“I think everybody from a draft standpoint is looking for guys that specializing in certain things. And I think he’s got all the tools that you’re looking for from an every-down standpoint. So you throw that on top of who he is as a person, his character, his want-to, his leadership ability, he’s as special as I’ve been around.”

Anderson is an edge-rushing example of how defenses have clawed back a bit against the offensive revolution. Average points per game at their lowest in a decade (28.5). The four CFP semifinalists were among the top 20 in total defense. Georgia has one of the best overall defenses college football has seen in the last 20 years.

Anderson is a living example of why the best linemen reside in the Southeast, the same way the best strikers (in soccer) come from Brazil and Canada is the home of hockey. In the Southeast, it just is that the best defensive front seven players grow up there and usually stay home.

“I think Georgia was Will’s dream school,” Fedd said.

“We certainly want to know where he is,” Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken said of pointing out Anderson on the field Monday.

Saban has produced four Heisman Trophy winners since 2009, including the program’s first quarterback to win the award this season. If Young (421 yards against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game) isn’t Alabama’s key to win Monday night’s title game, Anderson holds that distinction.

“One of those big, old mud-tire driving trucks,” running back Brian Robinson said when describing Anderson. “I can’t really explain, but he’s one of them guys who can get real dirty, get himself up and get ready to do what he did all over again. That’s what you use those big … trucks for — off-road type stuff.”

If his “snub” still bothers fans, consider that Anderson has to be one of the early Heisman frontrunners in 2022.

“Your car,” Fedd reminded the linebacker, “can’t sit in park.”

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