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[Follow live: Alabama vs. Georgia in CFP title game]
Few coaches can serve as better arbiters of Alabama’s defensive line dominance than former Florida offensive line coach John Hevesy.
Hevesy logged 17 consecutive years in the SEC at Florida, Mississippi State and then Florida again from 2005 to 2021. That means facing an assembly line of Crimson Tide trench bullies over Saban’s 15 seasons in Tuscaloosa.
The foundation of Alabama’s dynasty has come thanks to annual dominance on the defensive line, including double-digit first- or second-round picks since 2010. Amid all that talent, they’ve never quite had an edge rusher the caliber of sophomore Will Anderson Jr.
“They’ve had some great ones, but he’s different,” Hevesy told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “He’s got enough power to bull rush you, but what makes him different is that he’s going to chase things down on the backside.”
When Georgia plays Alabama on Monday night in the College Football Playoff title game, it will be a match-up of the sport’s two most talented teams. Each roster is a constellation of five-and four-star athletes. Amid all that sparkle, Anderson enters the game with the reputation as the best player on the field.
Anderson’s marauding season of relentless domination — highlighted by an FBS-best 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss — have him on the cusp of becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL draft. At 6-foot-4 and 243 pounds, he’s the sport’s most unstoppable force.
Twitter needs to come up with a “Tank for Tua” thing on Will Anderson for 2023 NFL draft. If you watch the tape and listen to how Alabama coaches talk about him, it’s almost impossible not to project him as the No. 1 overall pick 18 months from now. His makeup is off the charts.
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) December 4, 2021
Anderson’s main competition for that top pick in 2023 will likely come from his own locker room, as sophomore Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young looms as the most talented quarterback in the sport next year. Quarterback need has shown to trump overall talent in prior drafts.
But there’s a rare air around Anderson that has him on the trajectory of players like former South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney and former Texas A&M star Myles Garrett, both of whom entered their final college seasons as prohibitive favorites to the be the No. 1 overall pick.
“I think he’s a generational talent,” said former NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum, who is an analyst for ESPN and founder of the 33rd team. “He’s twitchy, explosive, instinctive. He has a great game temperament, great play speed.”
Anderson, 20, finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, which meant he didn’t even get the experience of traveling to New York City for the ceremony. But an offseason as being hailed as the most talented prospect in the sport may help position him to be better recognized in the voting next season.
Few can argue his ability to wreck a game, as his average of 2.5 TFLs per game is nearly a whole tackle ahead of the next player in college football (Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal and Utah’s Devin Lloyd at 1.6). Pick a wrecked game plan — four sacks against Mississippi State, four TFLs and a batted pass against LSU, or three TFLs against Auburn. With a sack on Monday, he can pass Derrick Thomas for the second-most sacks in a single season at Alabama. He won’t finish first, as Thomas registered an astronomical 27 sacks in 1988, the unofficial NCAA record.
NFL scouts don’t closely study players who aren’t draft-eligible, so the deep dives on Anderson will have to wait until the offseason. But it’s also impossible not to notice just how destructive Anderson is when watching the Tide, and it's fair to project that he’d be firmly in the conversation for the top pick in the upcoming NFL draft if he were draft-eligible.
“He jumped out in about every game I saw,” said a veteran scout. “He’s just different than the other guys they’ve had in terms of pass rushers. They’ve always the big interior guys. Off the top of my head, I’m not sure how many true edge difference-makers they’ve had.”
Alabama’s scariest edge rushers during Saban’s tenure came in 2015, when Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams and formed a menacing duo and finished with 22.5 combined sacks. Allen got picked in the first round and Williams in the third in 2017.
Since 2010, there have been at least 20 Alabama defensive linemen drafted. At least 11 of them have been picked in the first or second round. (Those number can be a bit nebulous due to positional semantics, as players like Ryan Anderson, Anfernee Jennings and others were looked at as hybrids by the NFL. Will Anderson is actually listed as a linebacker, but considered an edge rusher and will be looked at as a defensive lineman or a 3-4 edge rusher in the NFL. Yahoo’s NFL draft expert, Eric Edholm, compares him to Von Miller.)
None of those prior linemen under Saban have the skill set and edge-rushing potential of Williams. He’s 6-foot-4 and 243 pounds, which means he’s not a complete physical freak like the 6-foot-5, 266-pound Clowney or the 6-foot-4, 272-pound Garrett. But what may be lost in NFL combine numbers is compensated by an unmatched motor and diversity of skill set.
“He just goes and goes and goes,” Hevesy said. “You can sit there and say, ‘What do we do to stop him?’ He’s everywhere. You always have to account for him. It’s hard to chip him (with a back), but you do things to chip him.”
Anderson’s dominance has also allowed Alabama to evolve a bit defensively on third downs. Hevesy said in the past when playing Alabama, they’d bring exotic pressures on third downs as a way to manufacture pass rush. That’s helped Alabama get an SEC-best 15 interceptions, despite lacking the usual waves of talent in the secondary.
“The difference is they can rush four and still play coverage and get pressure without going nuts,” Hevesy said. “They don’t have to get into exotics. On third-and-7 they can stay in a four-down look.”
And while there will surely be manufactured conversation and contrived debate about Anderson not playing next season at Alabama before he’s draft-eligible, that topic will be much more firmly rooted in content generation over reality. Anderson enters the national title game on a rare trajectory, a defensive standout already earmarked for No. 1 before the end of his sophomore season.
“I think he’s one of those guys with both character and talent,” Tannenbaum said. “It’s clear how important it is to him. I think he has a chance to be really special.”