ON OCT. 18, the Monday before the storied Alabama–Tennessee rivalry was renewed for the 104th time, former Vols quarterback Jeff Francis was making his weekly appearance on a Knoxville radio show when Eli Gold called in. The play-by-play voice of the Crimson Tide Sports Network, Gold helped preview the game, eventually turning his attention to the defense and pass-rusher Will Anderson Jr.
To underscore Anderson’s ability, Gold rattled off some of his statistics through seven games, namely his league-leading 15 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
“Wait a minute,” Francis interjected. “Is he close to Derrick Thomas?”
It was hard to imagine anyone approaching the legendary former Alabama player’s unofficial record of 27 sacks in 1988 — the NCAA didn’t begin tracking the stat until 2000, and no FBS player has reached 20 sacks since Elvis Dumervil in 2005 — but here was this sophomore making a run at history and giving Francis flashbacks. On cold days, Francis said he can still feel the remnants of the shoulder separation Thomas caused when he tackled him to the ground inside Neyland Stadium 31 years ago.
Five days after recalling his old nemesis — “He was like blocking smoke,” Francis said of Thomas — he watched in awe as Anderson tore through the Tennessee offensive line, adding two more sacks to his already impressive total.
Francis wasn’t the only of Thomas’ former opponents experiencing déjà vu. A week earlier, former Mississippi State quarterback Tony Shell, who once had a tooth cracked by Thomas, turned on his television to see his alma mater play Alabama.
“You can’t help but notice Will Anderson,” Shell said. “And I would say the first word that comes to mind with the way both those men played is just dominant. I have watched [Anderson] and he truly, truly is dominant. And so was Derrick Thomas.
“They have a lot in common with the way they can take over a game. Against my Bulldogs, I can’t tell you how many sacks he had.”
The answer: four. Anderson became just the third player in school history to record at least that many sacks in a game, and the first since Thomas had five sacks at Texas A&M and four sacks at Kentucky in 1988.
“Honestly,” Shell said, “I don’t know who was taller and who was heavier and who was faster, but they seem to be dominating at exactly the same level. It’s amazing to watch. You know they plan for him and try to block him with running backs to help in protection and try to go away from him and all kind of stuff, but he shows up every week.”
To answer Shell’s question, a search of Alabama’s official rosters show that both Anderson and Thomas were listed at 6-foot-4, but that Anderson is 21 pounds heavier. Still, when CBS aired a mashup of Anderson and Thomas’ highlights during the Iron Bowl in November, the similarities were obvious.
Thomas was in many ways the prototype for the modern pass-rusher: long, lean, powerful and fast. While he would have been too undersized to play with his hand in the dirt at defensive end, he thrived rushing from the standing outside linebacker position.
Without Thomas, we might not look at players like Von Miller, T.J. Watt or Will Anderson Jr. in quite the same way. Some teams’ depth charts have even started to account for their unique positions, labeling the not-quite defensive ends, not-quite linebackers simply as “edge.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban called Anderson “one of the most productive players in college football as a defensive player” this season.
Anderson had two more sacks last Friday and was a big reason Alabama gave up only six points in a win over Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
As the top-ranked Crimson Tide prepare to play Georgia in the CFP National Championship game on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), Anderson’s numbers speak for themselves: an FBS-best 17.5 sacks and an NCAA record 34.5 tackles for loss.
While he’s likely to fall well short of Thomas’ sack record with one game remaining, Anderson could make a run at the 39 tackles for loss Thomas had in 1988.
“He’s done as much for our team as anybody ever has,” Saban said.
ANOTHER THING SHELL noticed during Anderson’s one-man wrecking show against Mississippi State: his drive.
Thomas, Shell said, was the exact same way.
Thomas was a first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. He averaged 11.5 sacks per season and earned nine trips to the Pro Bowl. He died of a pulmonary embolism on Feb. 8, 2000, two weeks after being paralyzed in a car crash. He was 33.
“When they step on the field, it’s 110 percent on every play, no matter if they’re up or if they’re down,” Shell said.
It didn’t take Alabama coaches long to notice that quality in Anderson.
Former Crimson Tide analyst Mike Stoops said the staff knew Anderson was a “unique talent” when they signed him as a four-star prospect out of Dutchtown, Georgia, in 2020. But on the day they were supposed to start spring practice, COVID-19 caused college football to be shut down.
Stoops said Anderson didn’t show any frustration due to the lack of a spring game or the limited amount of organized team workouts that summer. Nor did he beat himself up when he struggled to learn what Stoops said is a difficult defense for young players to comprehend.
Anderson instead made extra time to study, showing what Stoops called a “maturity beyond his years.”
Senior defensive tackle DJ Dale noticed that, too. He saw a freshman with confidence but also a willingness to listen and learn. Dale said of Anderson at the time, “He’s got it.”
Defensive end LaBryan Ray and safety Jordan Battle marveled at Anderson’s ability to get into the backfield and wreak havoc. Linebacker Christian Harris couldn’t get over his speed. Dr. Matt Rhea, Alabama’ director of sports science, would later tell ESPN’s Mark Schlabach that Anderson has reached 20 mph on GPS while running in practice.
Anderson was so impressive when going against the first-team offense that former quarterback Mac Jones nicknamed him “Terminator” because he’s “always … just destroying whoever has the ball.”
“A lot of kids have physical attributes,” Stoops said of Anderson. “He had them, and he had a drive that was just different.
“It’s very rare to see someone that big, that fast, move that way all the time.”
Anderson started slowly as a freshman, not picking up his first sack until the eighth game of the season against Auburn. But then he had a pair of sacks in each of the final three regular-season games, planting his flag as one of the best young players in college football.
Anderson admitted that he had a lot to learn and that his confidence didn’t click until late. He was playing it safe, he said, before coming to the realization, “OK, this is your job, now let’s play football, let’s be Will Anderson.”
That Will Anderson earned Freshman All-America honors and entered the offseason season as the face of the Alabama defense.
That Will Anderson has surpassed expectations as a sophomore, earning unanimous First Team All-America honors to go along with the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Whereas Thomas finished 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1988, Anderson came in fifth and had the third-most first-place votes behind the Heisman winner, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, and runner-up, Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.
“Just to be mentioned with his name and all the success he’s had here, and just to be even talked about with his name is really a blessing. But I really can’t dwell on those type of things because we have so much here to do. … We have to get a natty.”
Will Anderson Jr. on Derrick Thomas comparisons
An SEC assistant who played Alabama this season said he’s too young to remember Thomas in college and instead likened Anderson to former Dallas Cowboy and Super Bowl champion DeMarcus Ware — another hybrid linebacker/defensive end who led the NFL in sacks in 2008 and 2010, and was named to the All-Decade Team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee.
“He’s a beast,” the assistant said of Anderson. “He dominated against us.”
Another SEC coach agreed with the Ware comparison, adding that Anderson is “freakishly fast.”
“He’s all that and he’s much bigger,” the coach said. “But he certainly reads and reacts the same way DeMarcus did, that’s for sure.”
Former LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Anderson is someone whom offenses try to account for, and still he still finds a way to affect the game.
“You try to run the zone read away from him, and he runs you down,” Orgeron said. “You try to kick him while he beats the block.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart described Anderson as “explosive, twitchy and tough.”
Against the Bulldogs in the SEC championship game last month, Anderson had one sack and two tackles for loss.
Georgia was ranked No. 1, undefeated and favored to win the game, and instead lost to Alabama 41-24.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” Smart said of Anderson. “He plays with so much passion and toughness and energy.”
ANDERSON DIDN’T grow up watching football, and even if he had, he’s too young to have seen Thomas in college or the NFL. Still, he said he has heard the comparisons to the former Alabama great and is flattered.
“Just to be mentioned with his name and all the success he’s had here, and just to be even talked about with his name is really a blessing,” he said. “But I really can’t dwell on those type of things because we have so much here to do.
“We have to get a natty. We have to play, practice, everything. It’s where my focus has been.”
Focus is clearly important to Anderson. The way he talks about it, as if it’s his superpower — not his speed or his strength, but his ability to stay locked in on the task at hand.
He said he has never actually seen any of the Terminator movies and had to research what they were about before deciding the nickname could stay. He hasn’t publicly signed a single deal to profit from his name, image and likeness, saying it could wait until after the season.
As far as all the hype surrounding him, he said, “I ignore it all.”
Earlier this week, he recalled a conversation with his high school coach that he said “really opened my eyes” in which his coach told him to think of himself like a car, that his body was the engine and how “the only thing you need to get going is that engine.”
“Anything else that comes with it, any accolades, anything else, that just to make you look nice,” he said. “As long as your engine is going in your car, you’re fine.
“For instance, me getting that Nagurski Trophy, that was just a pair of rims on my car. So I think that’s how you approach it.”
Asked what type of car Anderson would be, Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. said, “Will is more like a dually truck, one of those big old mud-tire, driving trucks.”
Opposing quarterbacks remember Thomas in much the same way — the type to run you over, leave you in the dirt and speed away. Instead of talking trash, he earned their respect with his play. Former Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana) quarterback Brian Mitchell said of Thomas, “He was intimidating because he went about his business.”
When teammates lobbied for Anderson to reach New York as a Heisman finalist — and later expressed their disappointment when he fell short — Anderson stayed silent, despite having more tackles, tackles for loss and sacks than the only defensive finalist to appear at the ceremony, Hutchinson.
Anderson instead went out the very next game against Cincinnati and dominated. He was recognized as one of the coaching staff’s players of the week for a whopping 10th time this season.
If Alabama is going to beat Georgia for a second time this season in the CFP National Championship game Monday, it will be because Anderson leads the way once again.
Never mind that it was only a month ago that the Crimson Tide beat the Bulldogs convincingly in Atlanta.
Never mind that Anderson & Co. forced Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett into a pair of interceptions and limited him to 11 rushing yards.
This game will be different, Anderson said.
“We just have to contain him,” he said of Bennett. “I think that’s the biggest part of his game is his legs and him running all around the field. We just have to contain him in the pocket and make sure he’s not running all over the field on us.”
Anderson was convinced that Alabama was the underdog against Georgia and then again versus Cincinnati.
So why change the intensity level now?
“All the pieces are starting to fall together,” he said. “I think that’s why the defense has been playing the way it has. We talk all the time, we say we have one more game to play, put everything together, get all the pieces lined up right.”