Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr., receives the most publicity of any defender that will be a part of the Tennessee-Alabama game on Saturday. Rightly so. He’s one of the best defensive players in recent memory.
It’s hard to be a Heisman Trophy candidate as a defensive player. However, Anderson was clearly that last year. In fact, there was a firestorm of criticism about the Heisman committee’s decision not to invite him to the Heisman presentation ceremony last year. For the record, he was on my Heisman ballot and he should have been awarded with a trip to New York, at least.
However, despite how good Anderson is, there’s at least a decent chance that he won’t be the edge rusher that everyone is talking about after the Vols take on the Crimson Tide in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. There’s no arguing that Anderson is special, perhaps the best at his position in college since the late Derrick Thomas wreaked havoc on the SEC in the early 1990’s.
Anderson led the Crimson Tide in tackles (8) when Alabama beat the Vols 52-24 last year. He also had two sacks. However, Tennessee’s offense has proven it is better at sealing the edge than in past years – even last year.
For proof, take a look at what the Vols did against LSU’s edge rushers last week. Vaunted pass rushers B.J. Ojulari and Ali Gaye only accounted for 11 tackles against Tennessee and none occurred behind the line of scrimmage.
Tennessee defensive lineman Byron Young had a much better day. Young was named the SEC defensive lineman of the week on Monday after recording two-and-a-half sacks against LSU.
So could Young upstage Anderson? It’s possible. The Crimson Tide gave up four sacks against Texas A&M. Keep in mind that the Aggies recorded those four sacks despite the fact that Bama quarterback Jalen Milroe, who was replacing injured starter Bryce Young, is known for his mobility and his penchant for avoiding sacks. At least that was supposed to be the case.
Young and UT’s entire defensive front might be the key to the Bama game on Saturday. The Vols have a depleted secondary that already was full of question marks before the season. Arguably Tennessee’s best cornerback, Warren Burrell is already sidelined with a season-ending injury and no one is certain what Jaylen McCullough’s status will be after being arrested on Sunday. If the Vols are going to survive defensively, they have to have a strong pass rush. There is no way that the Vols can cover Alabama’s receivers for vast amounts of time and survive.
As far as protecting the passer, Alabama and Tennessee are both better than average. The Vols rank seventh in the SEC with 1.6-sacks allowed per game. Alabama is a bit better. The Crimson Tide is fifth in the SEC with 1.5 sacks allowed per game.
Looking for the most established edge rusher in Saturday’s game? There’s no question that Anderson is that player. However, if Young can come even close to matching what he did last week, he might not be the defensive end/linebacker that everyone is talking about on Saturday evening.