WIll Anderson

Alabama linebacker Will Anderson (31) fights off a Georgia lineman in the SEC championship game Dec. 4, 2021, in Atlanta.

Clifford Fedd knows about the switch.

A coach of 20 years, Fedd helped develop Alabama's all-American linebacker Will Anderson Jr. into a menacing pass rusher at Dutchtown High in Hampton, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. He witnessed an evolution that took work and time, but as Fedd reflects on Anderson's early-career successes, the byproduct seems all but ordained given his tales of Anderson's focus and drive.

There was Anderson's tendency as a freshman to sit in front of the class, attentive to his teachers and his school work. There were Fedd's oft-interrupted winter and spring breaks during Anderson's junior year, when the player asked his coach to open the school's facilities so he could continue working out. And, of course, there was the senior retreat near Stone Mountain, where Anderson manhandled an adult in tug of war.

"If you know anything about Stone Mountain, at the bottom of Stone Mountain there's always a couple of guys out there lifting weights, doing push-ups and training people, and I'm talking about grown men," Fedd said. "They had a tug of war rope down there, and the strongest guy said: 'Give me your strongest player. I'm going to drag him.' I pointed to Will, who went from a big smile on his face but just got serious from that point forward. He looked at the guy … face balled like a piece of paper, and he proceeded to drag this man. As soon as he won, the smile came back."

Fedd has known Anderson as a genial, selfless student since they first met six years ago, but he has also seen the switch, when competition calls and Anderson refuses to recede. That relentlessness helped transform the Crimson Tide's sophomore star into the most recent incarnation of an elite edge rusher, joining a line of prolific backfield intruders whose lineage includes a Watt, and a Miller, and one Derrick Thomas.

Thomas reset the bar as an outside linebacker at Alabama in the late 1980s, smashing school records and evolving into one of the best pass rushers in college football and NFL history. In 1988, he set the NCAA record for most sacks in a season (27), and he shares the record for most sacks in a career (52) with former Arizona defensive lineman Tedy Bruschi - although both marks are considered unofficial because the NCAA began officially tracking sacks as a statistic in 2000. Thomas also maintains a startling grip on Alabama records for tackles for loss (39) and quarterback hurries (44) in a season, among others.

Building on a freshman campaign that saw him compile all seven of his sacks during the final four games of the 2020 regular season, Anderson set a new standard from the first game of his sophomore year, recording the first of 17.5 sacks against Miami. He registered four sacks against Mississippi State and two in last month's College Football Playoff semifinal against Cincinnati.

Although Anderson probably won't break Thomas's single-season sack record, or the official mark of 24 set by Terrell Suggs in 2002 at Arizona State - his nation-leading 34.5 tackles for loss are not far from Thomas's standard.

That production, and the way he wreaks havoc on offenses, has understandably drawn comparisons to the former Alabama legend. During a November thriller between Alabama and Auburn, CBS juxtaposed highlights of Anderson and Thomas hunting and sacking quarterbacks. During the lead-up to Monday's national championship game against Georgia, he was asked about Thomas.

"I didn't grow up really an Alabama football fan, so I can't really say anything that I knew of Derrick Thomas," Anderson said during a news conference. "… I really don't know too much about him, but just to be mentioned with his name and all the success he had here, and just to be even talked about with his name, is really a blessing."

Anderson is partial to Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald. He likes the way Donald explodes into offensive linemen, using his hands to offset and shed blockers in the trenches.

It's a skill the 6-foot-4, 243-pound Anderson committed to his repertoire, and one Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding attributes to the all-American's success.

"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," Golding said.

"Obviously, he's an elite pass rusher, but 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. Everybody from a draft standpoint is looking for guys that specialize in certain things, and I think he's got all the tools that you're looking for from an every-down standpoint. 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."

In just his second season, Anderson was named SEC defensive player of the year and won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, one of the awards honoring the nation's top defensive player. His physicality earned him the nickname "Terminator" during his freshman season, a tag suitable for someone "just destroying people" during Crimson Tide practices, as former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones put it, although as he was with Thomas, Anderson was unfamiliar with the reference.

"I'm kind of ashamed because I've never even watched the movie 'The Terminator,'" Anderson told reporters last year. "When I looked it up . . . I said, 'OK, it can stay.'"

Dominant defensive players have increasingly garnered more attention from Heisman Trophy voters in recent years. Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o finished second to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2012, and Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson was a runner-up behind Anderson's teammate, quarterback Bryce Young, this season. Anderson's conspicuous absence from the top four - the group that is invited to attend the Heisman ceremony in New York - puzzled some and seemed to disappoint the star linebacker, who finished fifth despite having more sacks and tackles for loss than Hutchinson.

During a gathering at Anderson's parents' home in Stockbridge, Georgia, to celebrate his postseason accolades, Fedd referenced another machine to encourage Anderson to look beyond his Heisman snub.

"He was telling me that . . . I'm a car, and the only thing you need to get going is that engine," Anderson said. "Anything else that comes with it, any accolades, anything else, that's just to make it look nice. So as long as your engine is going in your car, you're fine. . . . Me getting that Nagurski Trophy, that was just a pair of rims on my car."

Anderson hopes to add an important embellishment Monday, when he can win a second national title and move up the school and NCAA sack charts in the process.

The latter hardly matters to Anderson, although Fedd said he believes his former player could own some of Thomas's records before his college career ends.

"I believe he'll probably get those records, but that's not going to be Will's motivation," he said. "Will's motivation will be to win another SEC title, and get back to the national championship game for a third year in a row, and be the best Will that Will can be."

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