BATON ROUGE, La. — If Noah’s Ark had two of everything, Saban’s Ark has five, six, or seven. Thumpers, marauders, game-changers, they come pouring out of the stadium tunnel behind the Alabama football coach before kickoff. Every flavor of linebacker, defensive back, and lineman, many of them NFL-worthy.
The surplus of talent at Alabama has made fifth-year senior linebacker Ryan Anderson look like just another guy in the assembly line.
He’s not just another guy.
Anderson is the spiritual leader of the Alabama defense and he may be the unit’s most valuable player. If he is, he should be in the running for the defensive player of the year in the SEC.
The case for Ryan Anderson
Anderson, who weighs 245 pounds, has punishing mitts, hands that shock offensive linemen when they try to move him. You should have seen Anderson Saturday night against LSU fighting 300-pound tackles to a standstill, or keeping leverage on a tight end trying to shove him inside so a runner could escape.
But that’s only a fraction of Anderson’s resume.
Anderson also pressures the quarterback. He has 5.5 sacks this season and leads Alabama in tackles for loss (12.5). LSU tried to slow his charge with play fakes to running back Leonard Fournette, but Anderson’s eye control was superb. He saw the fakes and kept charging. Alabama leads FBS in sacks (37) in part because of his prowess.
“Just having your eyes on the right thing, you can tell when a team is going to do a lot of play-action and boot(leg),” Anderson said. “Against A&M, I struggled with that a little bit. I have been really working on that, seeing the dip of the shoulder and reading the mesh point a little bit and getting into my transition.”
We still haven’t gotten to the biggest reason why he is MVP of the Alabama defense. But hold on, there is still more tangible evidence to go through. In the 10-0 win over LSU, Anderson recorded a pass breakup, a sack, a quarterback hurry, and was in on 6 tackles. It was Anderson crashing into Tigers quarterback Danny Etling that forced a wobbly throw and interception by Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The Crimson Tide held Fournette to 35 yards. LSU’s offense managed just 2.5 yards per play.
Now, we can talk about Anderson’s true value to the operation.
Anderson consistently does what he is supposed to do inside the defense. He sets a sideboard on some plays, so the runner cannot bounce outside. On other plays he stymies an offensive tackle and holds a gap, so he becomes part of the wall that Alabama builds against the run. Anderson does not bust. He stays on the chain of the defense. Anderson can play every down.
The essence of the Alabama program is not its talent, but its practice regimen, and in practice Monday through Friday, Anderson is the alpha. A professional scout that has watched recent Crimson Tide practices said Anderson sets the tone, a vocal leader who hustles from the first whistle of the afternoon to the last.
Anderson’s technique is better than anyone on the Alabama defense. He constantly tries to polish his skill at the five ball-strip drills the Tide practice throughout the week. Those strip drills, you may have noticed, help account for the flurry of non-offensive touchdowns this season.
Here is something more to admire about Anderson. He has been in the program since 2012, but he is just a first-year starter. Alabama is a practical program, which means development and growing as a player come first, not stardom. Raw talent gets you nowhere.
“If I could do it all again, I’d come back to right where I’m at with the same guys I’m playing with, I wouldn’t do it no different,” Anderson said. “My first two years it was pretty tough. Being ‘The Man’ in high school, the alpha dog, and then being the little fish in the big pond was different.
“I had to learn, I had to adjust, I had to be humble. It was real frustrating, but it was worth it. I’ve been on scout team going against (DJ Fluker) and (Chance) Warmack. That made me, man.”
Saturday night, while he warmed up inside the cauldron of Tiger Stadium, the outside backers gathered around Anderson for a pep talk. On his white wrist bands in black ink was a tribute to injured safety Eddie Jackson: “Do It for 4,” which is Jackson’s number. Another wrist band had a tribute to “Issac,” Anderson’s best friend who was killed in a car crash.
It is hard to find elite players in the SEC who do not start until their senior seasons. Most of them — Anderson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Tim Williams — are at Alabama because depth, or lack of discipline, makes them wait their turn.
Williams probably played his most complete game of the season against LSU. What is remarkable is that Williams was credited with just a half a sack, and he still excelled against the Tigers. He built his reputation as a pass rushing demon, but Williams made tackles in space Saturday night. He also did not have the “busts” on run downs that kept him out of the starting lineup as a junior in 2015.
Tomlinson was part of “the wall” that was bricked up to stop Fournette. He controlled one inside gap and Jonathan Allen another. It is the defensive tackle Allen, who has two of the non-offensive touchdowns, to go with seven sacks, who is mentioned most as the SEC’s best defender.
Anderson needs to be in that conversation, too.
Alabama’s 2016 recruiting class
Here is one last point about Ryan Anderson.
The 2008 Alabama recruiting class is regarded as the best of the Saban Era, but the 2016 class is also one of the top 5 Saban classes. How is that? Classes should not be evaluated this soon, right?
You need to think a little differently about recruiting these days because the NFL has pull. The 2016 class included high school quarterback Jalen Hurts, right tackle Jonah Williams, and running back Josh Jacobs, but it also included Eddie Jackson, Tim Williams, linebacker Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen, and Ryan Anderson. Saban re-recruited those five seniors and they came back for another season instead of going to the NFL.
Where would the Crimson Tide be without them? Williams, Allen, and Foster will be selected before Anderson in the 2017 NFL Draft. Anderson will not score well at the NFL Combine among outside backers because of his height/weight/speed. But there is no question who leads that Bama network of graybeards in every practice and in every game.