Alabama phenom Will Anderson Jr. eyeing national title redemption


This was years ago, before Will Anderson Jr. would develop into a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the top defensive prospects in recent memory, before he would start as a true freshman at Alabama and compile 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss as a 19-year-old sophomore. 

It was the spring going into his sophomore year of high school, and Anderson was excited about the season to come, excited about his future as an offensive player. 

“I thought I was going to be playing fullback, blocking for someone who was going to be running the ball,” he recalled in a phone interview. 

Will Anderson Jr.
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Fullback? Yes, fullback was the future he had in mind. 

But not for the new coaching staff at Dutchtown (Ga.) High School. They saw Anderson’s length, athleticism and motor on film. 

“You won’t be playing fullback for us, son,” Clifford Fedd, his former coach, recalled telling him. 

Looking back now, Fedd thought Anderson was a bit discouraged at the time about the move to defense. But when his parents spoke to defensive coordinator Will Rogers, and he shared with them his vision for their son and the potential he saw in him — and they relayed it to Anderson — he put his all into the new position. 

All of his friends played defense anyway, and he began to like the idea of getting after the quarterback. 

“I didn’t know much about defensive end. I think it just kind of came natural for me,” Anderson said. “It was the best decision he could’ve made for me.” 

These days, it’s looking like a brilliant choice. The 6-foot-4, 243-pound Anderson enters his junior year as a potential No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft. The aptly nicknamed “Terminator” could become the second defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy, joining Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson (1997). There is even talk he could break Terrell Suggs’ single-season sack record of 24 set in 2002 for Arizona State. 

“The last time I saw a linebacker like him was probably Derrick Thomas,” Paul Finebaum, the SEC college football historian and ESPN analyst said, referring to the late NFL Hall of Famer. “He’s the most intimidating player I’ve seen in modern times.” 

Will Anderson Jr. sacks LSU's Max Johnson.
Will Anderson Jr. sacks LSU’s Max Johnson.
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Lee Corso, an analyst for ESPN’s “College GameDay,” said Anderson reminds him of another Hall of Famer linebacker, Lawrence Taylor. Tony Pauline, a draft analyst for, believes he would’ve been the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, Anderson is that impressive. 

“He is explosive, he is athletic, he is strong,” Pauline said. “I’ve seen him beat tackles with speed, I’ve seen him beat tackles with power. I’ve seen him drop off the line and play in space. It’s the variety of things. He’s not just an outside edge rusher.” 

Said Evan Neal, the Giants’ rookie offensive tackle and Anderson’s former Alabama teammate: “He could’ve fit in [at this level] last year.” 

Anderson could sit out the season and be a top-three pick, but that doesn’t interest him. He’s focused on winning it all after losing in the title game in January. The sack record, he said, would be nice, but only if it happens organically. Anderson did list the Heisman Trophy as one of his preseason goals after finishing fifth last year. 

“I just want to do it for defensive players all around the world, not only for myself,” Anderson said. “Just to show defensive players are very capable of winning this award, are worthy of this award. It’s really not for me, but for all the defensive players at every level of football.” 

It’s ironic, considering Anderson once envisioned himself as an offensive player. He quickly made a name for himself on defense in high school, developing into a five-star, top-20 recruit, thanks to his raw talent and relentless work ethic. 

Will Anderson Jr. celebrates after winning the SEC championship.
Will Anderson Jr. celebrates after winning the SEC championship.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fedd remembered Anderson as the guy who always had to be first — first one in the weight room and last one to leave. He would run sprints with the skill-position players, not the linemen. During winter and spring break, while everyone was off, Anderson made sure Fedd and Rogers were around to get in one-on-one workouts at the high school field. This was his idea of fun. 

“Hanging out and doing a lot of the things that young kids do, that was never him,” Fedd said. “He didn’t want any days off.” 

He has an intense competitive streak. Whenever Fedd complimented a fellow defensive end or offensive tackle, Anderson wanted to be matched up with that player. He can still get his former player angry when bringing up an offensive tackle that stymied him once. 

The team took a retreat Anderson’s senior year to Stone Mountain in Georgia. At the bottom of the mountain was a rope that was used for tug of war. A muscle-bound guy was challenging all comers. Fedd volunteered Anderson. 

“You see Will go from laughing and smiling to a serious face,” Fedd remembered with a laugh. “He put his chin down into his chest. Will proceeded to drag that man. … He’s got a switch on him, the switch turns on real quick.” 

It’s the same way now. Anderson knows he will see frequent double- and triple-teams this season, but he likes a challenge. It pushes him to improve. Nothing, though, can alter his focus. 

Not the hype of being the No. 1 pick next April. Not the Heisman Trophy talk. Not the possibility of challenging Suggs’ record. All of his attention is on Utah State, Alabama’s Week 1 opponent. 

“Just being where your feet are, that’s one of the biggest things that you can do, and not get distracted by everything,” he said. “You still have to play the season. You just have to do so many more things to get to where you want to go, and you can’t jump over those things.” 

— Additional reporting by Steve Serby 



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