Anderson was regarded by most as a better basketball prospect than football, as he was nominated to play in the McDonald's All-American game. His athleticism did attract the attention of several big schools, including Tennessee, but actual offers were few.
In fact his Parkview teammate Marc Winston, rated the nation's No. 24 defensive end prospect by at least one recruiting service, was considered a better prospect. Even the home state Razorbacks didn't officially offer Anderson a scholarship until Jan. 13 or about three weeks before 2004's national signing day. Conversely they offered Winston in the fall of 2003. He also signed with Arkansas but transferred to Div. 2 Central Arkansas in 2005 after seeing limited playing time.
It didn't take Anderson long to grow out of the wide receiver position as he added an inch of height and 80 pounds over the next three years, transforming himself into a 285-pound defensive end. He didn't become a full-time starter until midway through his sophomore season in Fayetteville, but enjoyed a breakout campaign as a junior recording an SEC leading 13.5 sacks. He finished with 65 tackles including 19.5 behind the line of scrimmage and added 26 quarterback hurries. Anderson was a one-man wrecking crew against Tennessee and probably the most improved defensive player in the conference.
On the strength of that one standout season, and a ton of upside, Anderson was taken by the Atlanta Falcons with the No. 8 pick in the first round of Saturday's draft. That would be an impressive achievement by the nation's No. 1 ranked high school prospect, but when accomplished by the No. 19 ranked prospect in Arkansas and the No. 50 wide receiver prospect nationally it's nothing short astounding.
Moreover, it demonstrates why "upside" is such a buzz word in recruiting circles. It's essentially the great gray area of boom or bust that often defines success or failure in recruiting and, by way, also football. It entails a wide assortment of variables including work ethic, mental toughness and durability.
However the key components in determining upside are athleticism and a frame that can accommodate weight without greatly reducing speed and quickness. In other words you can more easily add weight and strength to an athletic prospect than you can add athleticism to a prospect with size and strength.
Another good example of a prospect with great upside is Tennessee defensive tackle Justin Harrell who was taken by the Green Bay Packers with the No. 16 pick in the first round. Most UT fans recall that Harrell was a tight end/defensive end at Martin West High School. His speed didn't translate to either position on the next level. Thus he appeared to be a project that would take substantial development to become an SEC starter.
The Vols needed a tight end that could block more than a pass catcher. In fact when they committed Harrell early in the process of the 2002 recruiting campaign, they were using a converted defensive tackle at tight end. Harrell started his senior season at 6-4, 275, but by the time he signed with UT he was an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier. Like Anderson, he was also a standout basketball player who averaged 17 points per game and had scholarship offers in the sport by several OVC programs.
Injuries prevented Harrell from fast tracking his talent to the pro ranks, but he was still a big-time prospect at the toughest position to fill on either side of the ball.
In an interview with this writer back in 2002 his high school head coach Don Coady offered the following appraisal of his young player.
"The thing about Justin that is kind of unique is that he's still not close to being physically mature," Coady explained. "He's still growing. He's grown an inch or so this year. He put on several pounds and it's not fat, he carries his weight well. He's got a brother that's 6-8 who plays basketball up at (Tennessee) Tech. So depending on which direction his body hits, he's going to really fill out and really muscle up over the next couple of years, and he's going to keep the agility and athleticism he has."
Most NFL scouts believe Harrell can add another 20 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame and, with a little luck in the injury department, could develop into a force in the trenches for the Packers.
Harrell has exhausted his college eligibility, but his upside is still viable and, ultimately, it was the thing that most distinguished him in the eyes of NFL executives. The same is true of Anderson who also overcame long odds by outgrowing expectations.