Football is a contact sport and with Wednesday’s practice – the third of Alabama’s spring work – the pads came on for the first time. Crimson Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson was anxious for it.
“The first day, everybody is excited to hit somebody,” he said. “Everybody is well, everybody is fresh, so everybody is excited to do it.”
Anderson, a 6-2, 253-pound outside linebacker, said that in the first few days “the offense has been trying to rough us up when we were in just helmets and jerseys. I think the defense has probably been looking forward to this day a little bit more than the offense.”
Anderson was something of a pass rush specialist last year and ranks fifth on the Alabama defense in tackles among returning players. In Bama’s 2015 national championship season he was in on 37 tackles, and 12 of them were behind the line of scrimmage for losses of 50 yards. He had 6 sacks for 41 yards in losses and 9 quarterback pressures, second only to All-America A’Shawn Robinson, who had 10. He also caused and recovered two fumbles.
With the Crimson Tide’s two starting outside linebackers from last season – Dillon Lee and Denzel Devall – having graduated, Anderson ranks as a favorite to be one of the starters in Bama’s 3-4 defense.
Anderson said that he remembers his first day in a full gear Bama practice very well. He said fullback Kelly Johnson delivered the memorable block. “It was the first time I ever really got hit,” he said. “It was like, ‘Welcome to the big boys,’ you know? He popped me. He really got me.”
Alabama’s great success in recent years has been built in great part on a defense that has ranked at or near the top defensively season-after-season. Can the 2016 defense be in that company?
Anderson said, “You can have all the pieces to a puzzle, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to put it together. So I feel like everybody has to come back that came back, work and help all the younger guys get better so we can get back to where we just came from. We’re starting all over. This is a whole new team, a whole new unit. We’re trying to find our identity. So that’s what the spring, that’s what the fourth quarter (off-season program) is about.”
There were a number of losses from last year’s starting defense – two linemen, three linebackers, two defensive backs. But, Anderson pointed out, “Our coaches did a pretty good job of recruiting a number one recruiting class, top recruiting classes every year. So we have guys that are capable. As the older guys and leaders now, that’s our job to get these guys ready to play. We have to bring them along.”
He said he won’t be the kind of leader that an intimidating A’Shawn Robinson was. “There’s different kind of leaders,” he said. “A’Shawn was that kind of leader. We don’t have anybody that’s 6-4, 320 pounds that can dunk a basketball. We don’t have guys big like that anymore. I’m a different kind of leader. Jon (Allen) is a different kind of leader. I like to lead by example. If I want a guy to run to the ball, I’m going to run to the ball every play.”
He wasn’t always that way, he said. He had to grow up and buy into the program. “It was a culture shock for me,” he said. “I had to do stuff that I was never asked to do before. At first, I was real stubborn about it, just being young and that kind of railroaded me little bit. I got in my own way.”
In his sophomore year, he said, he finally figured it out. Then, he said, “I just wanted to do whatever I had do to help the team. I started trusting the coaches and the process. Since then, everything has been going better for me.
“I feel like I’m improving as an all around player, not just doing certain things. I feel like I’m getting better in all aspects of my game.”
Anderson said there have been changes in recent years as Alabama faces more fast-paced offensive teams. “We don’t have as long of play calls,” he said. “In stead of calling out a whole play, we have plays where we’ve gone to just one-word calls, simplified a lot of stuff. It’s just one word or one signal, and that’s it.”
He also sees his new role in helping younger players.
Anderson said, “I see younger guys in the same place that I was in, moping around and stuff like that. There’s a time and a place to do things and a right and a wrong way to do things. If you have to go on the scout team, don’t go over there and not go hard. The best thing you can do is get better every day. Make those guys better. It’s going to make you better. I stress that to the younger guys.”
There was speculation that Anderson might leave Alabama early for a shot at the NFL, but he said a family discussion helped him decide to return for his senior season. He decided to continue at Alabama for what he thinks will be a special season. “We all want to work for it and reach our full potential.”
That work is going on through April 16, when the Tide has its annual A-Day Game. And now that the pads are on, he’s excited to be hitting. Hitting whom?