Will Anderson Jr. glowers at the camera like it was an opposing quarterback on third-and-5. Standing next to him, Alabama’s Heisman Trophy -winning quarterbeack, Bryce Young, sports a beatific smile befitting football’s glamour position.
The two most decorated players in college football — a fierce pass rusher and a poised-beyond-his-years passer — took different approaches to the No. 1 Crimson Tide’s team photo.
They’re on the same page when it comes to one pursuit: A national title.
Having arguably the best offensive and defensive player both back for their third (and final?) season in Tuscaloosa is an embarrassment of riches, even for coach Nick Saban and Alabama.
“To have two players that make such a significant impact on our team as those two guys, I don’t recall ever having a circumstance like that,” Saban said.
Alabama is banking on Anderson and Young to lead the team back to a national championship after a tantalizingly close call last season. Both are high on the lists of preseason Heisman Trophy candidates and potential No. 1 NFL draft picks.
Despite all that, and lucrative celebrity endorsement deals, Saban and their teammates say Anderson and Young just aren’t the types to get complacent.
“That’s why me and Bryce work so well together, because we are kind of wired the same,” Anderson said. “We both want to be great and want to improve every day, and we’re always looking for some way to get better.”
Last season would be hard to top statistically for the two.
Young set Alabama single-season passing marks with 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns in his first season as starter. He was intercepted just seven times on his way to becoming the Tide's second straight Heisman winner.
But instead of heading to Hawaii with his family, Young worked out twice a day with his trainer and threw most days during the semester break before returning to Tuscaloosa for the summer.
“He was ultimately, utterly committed to the season,” Young’s father, Craig, said.
Anderson led the nation with 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss. He won the Bronco Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player. Anderson finished fifth in the Heisman balloting, just missing out on finalist status and an invitation to the New York with his teammate.
Afterward, sister Shanice encouraged him to use that near-miss as motivation. “For him, I feel like as he gets more successful, it’s just fueling him to set new goals, reach new heights,” Shanice Anderson said.
The omission bothered him enough that the Heisman is now on the annual goal sheet Anderson keeps on the back of his phone. It’s a new addition to a list that he’s been compiling with Tide staffer Sal Sunseri before each season.
But Anderson says what drives him is a love of football and competition.
“Do what you do best, and that’s play football,” he said. “But also for me, I’m not saying I psyche myself up, but there’s a little voice like, ‘These people don’t respect you.’ It’s kind of like I’ve got to get my respect. I’ve got to go out there and do what I’ve got to do. I feel like that’s what keeps me going.”
Alabama's coordinators give similar reports on their best players.
“He’s different from everybody else,” defensive coordinator Pete Golding said. "He doesn’t let the noise get to him. He’s trying to be the best football player he can be and he’s trying to bring people with him. And that’s a daily job for him that he looks forward to.”
Said offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien: “Bryce is always looking to improve. Every single day he comes in there. He’s somebody that goes out to the practice field and is really striving for perfection every day and that’s a great guy to coach.”
It's hard to separate the intense, 6-foot-4, 243-pound passer harasser and the 6-foot, 194-pounder who is the one QB he can't lay hands on from each other, or from Alabama's fortunes this season. They arrived as prized recruits, and emerged as superstars, together.
They even had virtually the same class schedule as freshmen before Young changed majors. Their parents have become close, too.
“Their personalities are different,” Craig Young said. "The similarities I see are two people who have a lot of attention heaped on them, have a lot of accolades, have a lot of people praising them. And they have not allowed that to change who they are.
“They’re still humble. They’re still approachable, and neither of them feel like they’re above the team.”
To be sure, Young and Anderson aren't the team. Alabama has plenty of other talented players. But they could well be the driving forces for Saban & Co. to finish the job they couldn't last season.
“We always try to be on the same accord and always try to be on the same on the same page because we understand kind of our roles,” Young said.
In a way, that team photo shows they know their roles very well.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.
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