Why Will Anderson Jr. earned an invitation to the Heisman proceedings

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The finalists for the 2021 Heisman Trophy are set. Four deserving athletes — Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Kenny Pickett and Aidan Hutchinson — earned enough votes to secure an invitation to New York City for this weekend’s Heisman Trophy ceremony.

But there was one name missing, another defender whose performance this season should have earned him a trip to the Big Apple:

Will Anderson Jr. from Alabama.

Certainly there is a case to be made for all four finalists. Young, the presumed favorite, stepped into the spot vacated by Mac Jones and guided the Alabama Crimson Tide to another SEC Championship, throwing for 43 touchdowns along the way (against just four interceptions). Stroud put up huge numbers for the Ohio State Buckeyes, throwing for 38 touchdowns and is on track to eclipse 4,000 passing yards in the Rose Bowl.

Pickett broke a number of records for the Pittsburgh Panthers, including some held by the legendary Dan Marino. He topped Marino’s school record of touchdown passes, throwing his 81st career TD in the ACC Championship game. He also became the conference’s single-season touchdown pass leader with 42, topping a mark set by Deshaun Watson.

Then there is Hutchinson, the pass rusher from Michigan, who likely earned his spot in New York City thanks to huge games down the stretch against Michigan State and Ohio State. His 14 total sacks rank him third in the nation, and he also notched ten quarterback pressures this season.

Now, defensive players rarely earn Heisman honors, if ever. The only defensive player to ever hoist the trophy, Charles Woodson, likely boosted his campaign with what he did on offense, as he caught 11 passes for 231 yards and a pair of touchdowns the year he won the award. So Hutchinson, even with the invitation to the ceremony, still could be a long-shot winner.

Yet this season, with everything that has happened across the college landscape, might be the year we see a winner on defense. It also might have been a year to see two defenders invited to the ceremony. What is Anderson’s case? Well, you can start with the production. As noted above Hutchinson’s 14 total sacks place him third in the nation.

Anderson is first, with 15.5.

If tackles for a loss are your thing, Anderson leads all defenders with 32.5 total tackles for a loss.

Hutchinson is certainly worthy of being a finalist, and if he were to secure the Heisman Trophy he would be a fantastic choice. But looking at Anderson’s season, he would also be a worthy finalist. Let’s make the case for why Anderson should be joining Hutchinson in New York City this weekend.

Getting after the quarterback

(Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports)

The case for Anderson as a finalist begins, as you might expect, with how he pressures opposing passers. The numbers speak for themselves, as Anderson’s total sacks lead all NCAA pass rushers. When Anderson secured the Bronco Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player — on the same night he was left off the Heisman list — his head coach spoke about what Anderson has done this year:

I think he’s been one of the most productive players in college football as a defensive player. He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do. He’s a very consistent player. He’s very disciplined in terms of doing his job. He does it with tremendous effort and toughness.

When Nick Saban talks about defense, we should all listen.

Beyond the numbers, how Anderson gets to the opposing quarterback is worthy of praise. Take this play, a sack against Mississippi State, where he uses his quickness to get inside the right tackle, and then his length to drag down the quarterback behind the line:

But there is more to his game than pure speed. There is also power. On this sack of Matt Corral, Anderson works to the inside against the right guard, bull-rushing him into the backfield before disengaging and getting to the QB:

Anderson’s sack numbers — and how he goes about getting to the quarterback — made him one of the most impressive players in college football this season. That could have been enough to secure him a spot in New York City.

But the case does not end there.

Behind enemy lines

(Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports)

As previously indicated, not only did Anderson lead all college defenders in total sacks, he also led the NCAA in tackles for a loss with 32.5. That is an impressive number, especially when you consider that Utah’s Devin Lloyd — a talented linebacker who is likely a first-round selection — ranked second.

With 22.

Having ten more tackles for a loss than the player who came in second certainly stands out, as does how Anderson put himself in position for those plays. Similar to the sack numbers, the TFL numbers highlight a defender who is a master of his craft.

We can start with this play against LSU. The Tigers try and run on the interior, but Anderson’s explosiveness off the edge cuts this play down before it has a chance:

Now, the interior pressure forces the running back to try and bounce this to the outside, which puts Anderson in position for the play, but you can see how he stands up the blocker and then sheds him, getting to the RB behind the line.

Perhaps my favorite play from Anderson this season is this against Mississippi. Zone read designs leave an edge defender unblocked and are constructed to make him wrong. Should he crash inside on the potential handoff, the QB keeps the football and skips around him on the edge. If the defender stays home, the quarterback hands the football off.

(Of course, this is a massive over-simplification of things, and ignores concepts like the scrape exchange, but bear with me here).

So when a defender is able to actually make the QB wrong? That stands out:

Anderson crashes down off the edge and into the wing tight end, but keeps his eyes in the backfield. Seeing this, Corral pulls the football and tries to pick up this 3rd and 2 play with his legs.

That’s when Anderson scrapes off the blocker and shows his lateral quickness, cutting off the QB’s path. Corral tries in vain to cut back inside, but Anderson chops him down for the loss.

Sacks. Tackles for a loss. Stats that you might think would earn Anderson an invitation. Still, there is one more aspect to his game that might not be illustrated in the numbers, but is there to see.

The opportunities he creates for others.

Creating chances for his teammates

(Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports)

Beyond Anderson’s own production, a case can be made that what he has created for his teammates should be a part of his overall production, and yet another reason for his inclusion as a Heisman finalist. If you work through his season, you will find examples of him creating pressure that his teammates then exploit for sacks, or of Anderson working through double-team blocks to help spring a teammate for a big play, or of Anderson drawing the attention of the offensive line, creating one-on-one opportunities for other pass rushers to get home.

This play against Mississippi is an example of that last point. The offense slides the protection towards Anderson and he ends up doubled on the play. That creates a one-on-one matchup on the backside, and his teammate gets home for the sack:

Turner takes advantage and wins his matchup, and the Crimson Tide survive.

Now, as outlined earlier the four finalists this year are all deserving athletes. And should Hutchinson become the second defender — and second Michigan defender — to win the Heisman Trophy he will be a worthy selection. But there is a strong case to be made that a second defender, Anderson, should at least be in NYC alongside Hutchinson this weekend. The numbers, and the film, help make that case.

1

1