Amid Heisman and No. 1-Pick Hype, Will Anderson Jr. Stays Dominant and in the Moment

Adam KramerSeptember 8, 2022

TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA - NOVEMBER 13: Will Anderson Jr. #31 of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks at the scoreboard during the third quarter in the game against the New Mexico State Aggies at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 13, 2021 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On Sundays, Will Anderson Jr. likes to slip away. He would prefer to keep the location of his whereabouts unspecified, which is reasonable given how much his life has changed in the past 18 months. The days of anonymous existence are fleeting.

He seeks tranquility, which he often finds by a stream or pond. Always by water. This instinct has been in him since he was a child, long before he became the best defensive player in college football and a Heisman Trophy hopeful trying to change the way we view the award.

He and his father, Will Anderson Sr., would spend hours on the water, each trying to out-fish the other. There was competition—always competition. But this place was also his escape.

“The type of person I am, I give so much to football,” Anderson says. “And I release everything that is going on when I’m in nature. I listen to calm music and allow myself to relax. It soothes me. I can just watch the water and feel the breeze.”

On Saturdays, Anderson is everywhere. His feet are on solid ground, and he spends three-plus hours chasing quarterbacks and corralling running backs. Offensive coordinators do everything possible to avoid him. Offensive linemen try to stand in his path. To date, no one has succeeded with regularity.

Although he plays at Alabama, a place where the depth chart is clogged with 5-star recruits year after year, Anderson’s excellence looks different. His 17.5 sacks in 2021 were the most in the FBS. He also tallied 33.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 more than anyone else.

His performance earned him a fifth-place finish in the Heisman voting last year. It also prompted many to question whether the junior should even play college football again, even though he has to wait a year to enter the NFL. The scouts are already in love with the outside linebacker’s game, which prompted the rumblings surrounding his football future to grow louder.

“He would've been the first pick last year by a mile,” one NFL scout says about Anderson. “Zero debate. With a couple of quarterbacks in the mix, he may not go No. 1 next spring. Unless you are desperate for a quarterback, passing on him is a huge mistake.”

In B/R's latest mock draft, he's next year's No. 1 overall pick. Look around, and you will be hard-pressed to find any outlet that doesn't envision him being selected inside the top three picks.

Anderson still has his eyes on something more. On unfulfilled goals. On history. On building the next great Alabama defense. On a national championship and another run at the Heisman. The notion of sitting out couldn’t have been further from reality.

“That’s not in my mentality to do that,” Anderson says. “I love football too much. God has a plan for me, and he wants me here. I am committed. I am all-in. It’s an honor playing here.”

For a player who has already accomplished so much, there is still so much more he wishes to do.

Football started as an outlet. More specifically, according to his mother, Tereon Anderson, “Football was a way to get away from all those girls.”

These days, Anderson and his five sisters share a bond no story could possibly illuminate. But back then, when Anderson was just four years old, he needed something different. Football was it.

First, there was Shawnta. Then came Shanice. Then, Chyna was born. After her, Endia and Teria joined the family. His parents had always planned for a boy, although those plans were put on pause five times in a row.

“My wife said if and when we had a boy, he would be a Junior,” Anderson Sr. says. “But if this last one wasn’t a boy, I would have to find one somewhere else. God finally blessed us with a boy.”

Like most houses with young children, there was chaos. There were disagreements. There was also love and a dedication to one another.

Everyone had a partner. The older children looked out for their younger siblings. They pushed them; they guided them. They were accountable to and for one another.

In the instance of Will, his sisters made football possible. With both parents often at work, they would ensure that he got to and from practice. When they watched him play, they demanded more from him on the field.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 10: Alabama Crimson Tide LB Will Anderson Jr. (31) celebrates on the field during the Alabama Crimson Tide versus the Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff National Championship, on January 10, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

They also protected their younger brother. “And spoiled him like crazy,” their mother adds.

As they grew older, the standards didn’t change. Neither did the bond. On the cusp of so much more, the relationships between the family members have only grown and evolved.

“My family has meant everything to me throughout all this,” he says. “They made sure I had everything. There is so much love, and I appreciate them so much. Without them, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

In another universe, Anderson is still playing fullback.

In fact, for much of his football life, this was the only place on the field he wanted to be. He grew up with the ball in his hands. Defense was never on the radar.

That was, until Clifford Fedd was named the head coach at Dutchtown High School in Hampton, Georgia, in the winter of 2017. Fedd knew he was a special athlete almost immediately.

“After about a month, maybe a month-and-a-half of being there, I knew he was a dude,” Fedd says.

Given Anderson’s size, Will Rogers, Fedd’s defensive coordinator, asked Anderson if he would be willing to switch positions. They thought his size and physical gifts were tailor-made for the defensive line.

“He was distraught,” Fedd recalls. “He didn’t want to be called a defensive end. He wanted to be called a fullback.”

While Will and his father didn’t love the idea, Tereon was the least in favor of the move.

“I was not happy,” she adds. “We don’t play defense. We play offense. But they told me to trust them, and I did. Will also was willing to give it a try. Once he learned what he needed to do, he never looked back.”

Over the course of the next two seasons, Anderson grew into his new role. By the end of his recruitment, he was ranked as 247Sports’ No. 5 overall player in the class of 2020.

Before then, however, some teams shared concerns over his size and what position he would ultimately fit into. Clemson told Fedd it didn’t have room at defensive end. Georgia never really got involved, despite being in Anderson’s home state.

Alabama ultimately sent ace recruiter Sal Sunseri to get eyes on Anderson, who was listed at 6'3", 230 pounds as a recruit. “It was a battle of who was smiling the biggest,” Fedd recalls on the two meeting.

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 31: Alabama Crimson Tide offensive tackle Evan Neal (#73), head coach Nick Saban, linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (#31), quarterback Bryce Young (#9), and Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Henry To'o To'o (#10) celebrate during the trophy presentation during Goodyear Cotton Bowl CFP Semifinal college football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Cincinnati Bearcats on December 31, 2021 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Soon, a perfect football marriage was made between a player and program. Although his mother urged her son to take his time and size up all options before committing, Anderson’s mind was made up.

“Alabama was the place I was going to be able to surround myself with people who have the same mentality as me,” Anderson recalls. “They hold themselves to a certain standard here. I came here to compete against the best every day, and that’s what I’ve done.”

When he arrived as a true freshman, suddenly with an abundance of hype, Anderson learned early on what he was up against.

After lifting weights one day as a freshman, he was approached by Alex Leatherwood, a former standout offensive lineman with the school. Anderson thought Leatherwood was about to provide him words of encouragement or take him under his wing.

“He told me that when we get on the field for spring ball, he was going to f--k me up,” Anderson recalls through laughter. “I knew it was going to be a different type of ballgame, and I was ready.”

Before last season began, Anderson took a small, laminated piece of paper and put it inside the protective case that shields his iPhone. On it, he’d written his goals for the upcoming season.

Not once during the year did Anderson ever have to remove the item; he knew what was written on that piece of paper, word for word. Often when he reached for his cellphone, however, he would think about them.

“I met every goal but one,” Anderson says.

The lone goal Anderson did not achieve? He didn’t win the Bednarik Trophy, the award given to the sport’s best defensive player. That honor went to Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis.

Outside that, Anderson delivered one of the most productive, disruptive seasons a linebacker has ever delivered.

For as brilliant as his 2021 season was, you could see it coming. He started as a true freshman for Alabama in 2020—something Nick Saban has rarely done since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007—and he finished the year with seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.

This was merely a foundation for Anderson, whose body and knowledge of the position evolved in light-years before his sophomore year.

“I started preparing so hard in practice that when I got to the games it felt like practice,” Anderson says. “I knew what I was going to expect. I started to play so much faster when I did that. The game just started coming a lot easier to me.”

Anderson had multiple tackles for loss in all but four games last year. He had a four-sack game against Mississippi State. He was constantly schemed against, but it came to naught.

Near the end of the season, Alabama’s Heisman-winning quarterback seemed to command much of the spotlight. But all along, Anderson excelled.

Bryce Young ultimately won the Heisman by an overwhelming margin. Anderson pushed for the award but was unable to catapult to the top of enough ballots. Still, his fifth-place finish was rarefied air for a defensive player, especially a true sophomore.

FILE - Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) walks off the field after a 24-22 four-overtime win in an NCAA college football game against Auburn on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Auburn, Ala. Anderson is a top contender for the 2022 Heisman Trophy and Bronko Nagurski Trophy. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt, File)
AP Photo/Vasha Hunt, File

“I thought about it a lot, and I’m just going to put it out there,” his father says. “I feel confident he’s going to win the Heisman. I’ve seen his game elevate each year, and I think it’s going to elevate even higher this year.”

Anderson isn’t unaware of the hype, nor does he shy from the possibility. It’s not in his nature to predict a Heisman triumph—something only one defensive player, Charles Woodson, has done in the sport’s history. Woodson’s extended reps on special teams and offense ultimately paved a path.

In all likelihood, Anderson won’t have that luxury. If he is to win the Heisman, it will come because of what he’s done on the defensive side of the ball.

“I would be very grateful if I could win the award, but I look at it a little bigger than that,” Anderson says. “It’s not only just for me. I am doing it for all defensive players and the work that is being put in. If the Heisman is really for the best player out there, a defensive player should win the award.”

Whether winning the Heisman is on that small, laminated piece of a paper tucked inside his phone case will remain unknown for now.

“We will see,” he says through laughter, unwilling to tip his hand. Although given everything he's accomplished in only two years, there aren’t many mountains left to climb.

On Saturday, Anderson’s junior season officially began. In a 55-0 blowout win over Utah State, he delivered one tackle for loss. Given the lopsided nature of the scoreboard, his day ended early.

He will likely be called upon more this Saturday when Alabama travels to Austin to take on Texas in a rematch of the 2009 BCS National Championship.

Officially, the conversations that lingered about the possibility of him skipping his junior year have ended. In reality, they never carried any weight.

“We never discussed it,” his father says. “I know who Will is. He won’t sit out. If he can help it, he won’t miss a single game. He’ll try to play hurt before he sits out.”

Not since Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina’s former superstar defensive end and the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, has the buzz over a defensive player’s future been so robust.

Since his freshman year, NFL teams have had their eyes on Anderson. They haven't stopped watching since.

"Simply put, Anderson is the most disruptive edge-defender we've seen this century,” B/R draft analyst Brent Sobleski said. "Any knock on Anderson's game at this point would be considered nitpicking since he's consistently the best player on the field."

As with the Heisman, Anderson is not numb to the conversation about his football future. He knows what comes with playing at Alabama. It's largely why he landed there to begin with.

His parents understand this component as well. When asked about the NFL, however, Anderson Sr. is more eager to talk about the fact that his son is poised to earn his degree in December.

The present is certainly more chaotic than it’s ever been for the entire family, but there is a piece of it that everyone seems completely content to hang on to.

At a time when the sport is moving faster than it ever has, Anderson seems happy and motivated. As do those around him. Fame and fortune can wait a while longer.

“As a parent, I’m watching my son realize his dreams,” Tereon says. “I ask myself if this is really happening. Don’t pinch me; I don’t want to wake up. I want to stay right here in this moment, so proud and so full.”

No matter how this year finishes—no matter how many goals on his laminated paper are met—we are watching the beginning of the end of one of the greatest careers a collegiate linebacker has ever produced.

There is an urgency to catch every moment and every tackle behind the line of scrimmage. This isn’t just greatness; this is a level of football excellence reserved for very few.

Sundays are coming, and they are coming quickly. The days of escaping to a nearby lake will soon give way to what is likely to be a long and prosperous NFL career.

In due time, Anderson will have to find a new day and setting for serenity. Until then, however, he is exactly where he is meant to be.