HAMPTON, Georgia -- In the beginning, it was about the raw talent for Will Anderson Jr. The teenage edge rusher from this Atlanta suburb, Anderson was a Porsche without brake lights.
It didn't matter if the kid couldn't decipher a bull rush from a speed rush. He was a wind-up toy who never wound down. Forget about technique ... that could come later. In that beginning, it was first about making it through a Dutchtown High School practice.
Anderson's defensive coordinator, Will Rogers, remembers the prize defender lining up against the offense in drills.
"We had to take him out," said Rogers, who was at Dutchtown for Anderson's entire high school career. "We couldn't get anything done [offensively]. I hear they're doing the same thing at Alabama. They've got to get his butt out of there."
There is no official word on Anderson's impact at Alabama practices. They are mostly held out of sight of prying eyes. There is enough proof on Saturdays, however.
Anderson, a unanimous 2022 CBS Sports / 247Sports Preseason All-America selection and our Preseason Player of the Year, enters the season as the nation's best defender, a unanimous Preseason All-American and a potential No. 1 overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.
At age 19, Anderson became the first true freshman to start at linebacker for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. As a sophomore last season, he led the country in both sacks (17.5) and tackles for loss (34.5). No Power Five player has topped both categories in the same season for at least the last 13 years. Pro Football Focus lists Anderson as only the second true sophomore to lead the country in total pressures (82).
But Anderson's impact extends far beyond his stat line. In an age when edge rushers are so valued, he forces Bama observers to crack the vault and research the program's history. Ultimately, Anderson has to be considered among the best-ever Tide players at his position only two seasons into his career.
There have been great linebackers at Alabama -- Cornelius Bennett, Lee Roy Jordan, Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower -- but the best comparison for Anderson might be Pro and College Football Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas.
"It's like the 15th question I've had on that," Anderson said last month at SEC Media Days when asked about comparisons to Thomas. "I watched clips. [He's] a freakish athlete."
Thomas was more than that. In 1988, he finished 10th in Heisman Trophy voting after posting a school-record 27 sacks. That was 12 years before the NCAA even started keeping track of the statistic. His legend grew in the NFL. At the time of Thomas' death in 2000, he had the ninth-most sacks in NFL history. His record of seven in one game against Seattle in 1990 has never been broken.
If Thomas hadn't left us, there could have been a formal passing of the torch from one freakish athlete to another at Alabama. There are already flashes of Thomas in his play.
"He's got a burst like you won't believe," Rogers pointed out, "and he accelerates through tackles. Most people just kind of tackle them and drag."
"His ability to get off the ball is amazing," said Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, who played against Anderson in the 2020 Army All-American Bowl. "He's smarter than others."
Anderson has become so dominant that he is being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy favorite, not just a candidate. Winning the award clearly motivates him after being left out as a finalist in 2021. The defensive end force who did make it, Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, finished second in the voting.
The foundation, then, has been laid for the voters. The last defensive runner-up was Iowa's Alex Karras in 1957. The last defensive winner, of course, was Michigan's Charles Woodson in 1997.
"The reason I put [the Heisman] on my goal sheet this year is because not only for myself but for younger athletes that play defense as well," Anderson said. "We're capable. We're worthy."
This individual is more that capable, more than worthy.
"Coach [Saban] uses this term 'relentless discontent,'" Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding said. "That's who Will is. … Will shows up every day with the same mindset, 'I'm going to outwork everyone else. I'm going to prepare better than anyone else.' I don't have to put expectations on Will. He has his own."
With Anderson, you don't just get the individual. What his mother Tereon calls a family "village" on and off the field follows him almost everywhere. Some combination of his five older sisters routinely shoot down to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, just to take care of their little brother.
"We don't see him as Will the football player," said Shanice, the second-oldest sibling. "We see him as Will, our brother. We're his home away from home."
Teria, a hair stylist closest in age to her brother, recounted Anderson being recognized in a Walmart. The linebacker patiently waited as a fan dialed up family on her cell phone. Anderson talked to every single family member.
"Big Will" remembers one of the owners at Urban Bar & Kitchen in Tuscaloosa noticing his son attempting to go incognito with a hoodie pulled over his head as he walked in with his family.
"I don't know why you're sitting over here with that hoodie on your head. Everyone in here knows who you are. Go ahead and take that off," said Anderson's father as he recalled the restaurant owner's playful words.
It's tough not to be aware when Anderson enters a room. He's so accomplished in such a short period of time that he is one of those rare talents who could literally take the year off and still be a top draft choice. Not playing would at least save the risk of injury.
The only thing from keeping Anderson in college is NFL Players Association collective bargaining agreement that says players can't be drafted until they are three years removed from high school.
"Our village consists of nothing but positive reinforcement," Tereon said. "... We haven't really thought as much about the injuries but the mental [aspect]. There's no way around it. We're worried about how he's handling [fame]. You can't go a week without seeing an article or somebody saying something about him. That's what we kind of worry about the most."
The issue has been settled by the man himself. Anderson has deftly handled entry into the name, image and likeness market, joining A3 to advise other players on their name, image and likeness opportunities. Anderson recently told an Atlanta radio station he is driving a 2021 Porsche Cayenne GTS.
"I love football too much," said Anderson when asked by CBS Sports about having to play a third season. "I can't sit on the outskirts and watch other people play football. I'd be too anxious to get out there. I've committed to it, and I'm going to stick to it."
That village assembled recently at Dutchtown's media center to just talk about Anderson. Teria and Shanice were there. Tereon and Big Will sat side by side sharing stories. There was Rogers and former Dutchtown coach Clifford Fedd; both are now at Sumter County High School in Americus, Georgia. Dutchtown's athletic director, Amber White, was also there with her two daughters.
If you're going to talk one, you're going to talk to all. They ruminated far and wide about the destructive football force who likes nothing more than to fish and still has to take the trash out when he is home.
Alabama recruiters once asked Rogers to name the worst thing about the prize they were pursuing.
"I had nothing," Rogers said. "Literally nothing. He's a complete package."
That's why it's worth remembering the jewel that is Anderson back when he was unrefined. The motivation wasn't national championship rings, it was personal. Fedd recalls telling a 10th-grade Anderson he was "soft."
"Coming from South Georgia, we've always called North Georgia players 'soft,'" Fedd explained. "You go anywhere in South Georgia and ask them about a North Georgia player. 'They're long and pretty, but they're soft.'"
Fedd did it "just to mess" with the kid who looked anything but soft at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. But Anderson cried and wanted to quit. He had to be sat down by Rogers and reassured that it was a test. To survive it, Anderson had to give it back to Fedd.
"The lightbulb clicked on when he told me I was soft and I had no response," Fedd said. "Then, when I was telling him to do extra reps, he knocked them out. I had to find somebody else [to antagonize]. It wasn't no fun anymore."
Anderson admitted to being aware of the North-South comparison. It must be a Georgia thing. But having grown to a lithe 243 pounds as a junior, "soft" doesn't come to mind. There is going to be so much slide protection for opposing offensive lines this season, they'll need skates to account for him.
"I know for a fact it's a whole different ballgame in South Georgia," Anderson said. "The way they work out, the way they compete. They're not really flashy. They just want to get between the lines and play smash-mouth football. Up here in North Georgia, you've got the flashy guys, the guys that want to look good, play good."
All of it leads back to another, more mature form of motivation. Anderson has plenty of it. Tereon was so upset that her son had been moved to defense early in his high school career, she called Rogers crying. Mrs. Anderson wasn't the only one.
"I asked him, 'Do you know what an SEC defensive lineman looks like?'" said Rogers, who played at Mississippi State and spent a year on the Tennessee Titans practice squad in 2005. "You. It looks like you. He didn't like it. He went home crying."
Big Will used to taunt not only his son at game but his son's coaches, urging them to pull his son from the field.
"I would hear it during the game and after the game," the linebacker said. "My dad was different from most parents. He wasn't one of those parents, 'Put my son in the game.' He was like, 'Coach, if he don't want to play, take his ass out of the game.' It was all love."
So was Big Will's conversation with Tereon when she was pregnant with child No. 6. At that point, dad wanted a boy so bad he was ready to try again if the Y chromosome [only in males] didn't come through.
"I told him he was going to have to get a new wife," Tereon said. "That was it for me."
Luckily, the gender thing worked out. Now, the only male child in the Anderson village has all the motivation he can handle. Home-state Georgia and current home Alabama have won the last two national championships.
"Georgia was a dream school," Fedd said.
Perhaps the "tie" will be broken this season. Anderson, he said, was "a little off" in the loss at Texas A&M. In four College Football Playoff games, he has averaged 4.8 tackles with a total of two sacks.
None of it -- the Heisman, the Porsche, the comps, the expectations -- has been a distraction. Anderson also plays for his grandmother, Betty Taylor, who died in 2020 due to COVID-19 complications. The two were inseparable to the point Anderson still keeps -- and wears -- one of her bonnets.
"She came to every game she could make it to," Big Will said. "I'd have to push that wheelchair. She'd say, 'I'm not going in that wheelchair. I'm walking.' Some of that toughness rubbed off on him."