Will Anderson Jr. he looks at the camera as if he were an opposing quarterback on third and 5. Beside him, Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young has a beautiful smile befitting the glamorous football position.
The two most distinguished players in college football — a tough passer and a poised passer beyond his years — took different approaches to the No. 1 Crimson Tide’s team picture.
They are on the same page when it comes to one pursuit: a national title.
Having arguably their best offensive and defensive player 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 have such a big impact on our team like those two guys, I don’t remember ever having a situation like that,” Saban said.
Alabama is counting 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 his teammates say Anderson and Young aren’t the ones to get complacent.
“That’s why me and Bryce work so well together, because we’re kind of connected to the same thing,” Anderson said. “We both want to be great and we 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 both.
Young had a one-season success at Alabama with 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns in his first season as a 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 spent most of his semester break before returning to Tuscaloosa for the summer.
“He ended up being completely committed to the season,” Young’s father, Craig, said.
Anderson led the nation with 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss. Won the Bronco Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player. Anderson finished fifth in the Heisman voting, just missing out on finalist status and an invitation to New York with his teammate.
Sister Shanice then encouraged him to use this near miss as motivation. “For him, I feel like as he becomes more successful, it just fuels him to set new goals, to 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 he’s been building 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’m riling myself up, but there’s a little voice that’s like, ‘These people don’t respect you.’ It’s like I have to earn my respect. I have to go out there and do what I have to do. I feel like that’s what keeps me going.”
Alabama’s coordinators give similar reports of their best players.
“He’s different than 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 day job for him and he’s looking forward to it.”
Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said, “Bryce is always looking to improve. He goes in there every day. He’s someone who goes out on the field and really strives for perfection every day and is great to coach.”
It’s hard to tell the intense 6-foot-1, 243-pound passer and the 6-foot-194 who can’t keep their hands off each other or Alabama’s fortunes this season. They arrived as prized recruits and rose to superstardom, together.
They even had almost the same course schedule as freshmen before Young changed majors. Their parents have also come close.
“Their personalities are different,” Craig Young said. “The similarities I see are two people who get a lot of attention, they have a lot of praise, they have a lot of people praising them. And they didn’t allow it to change who it is.
“They are still humble. They’re still approachable and neither of them feels like they’re above the team.”
Sure, Young and Anderson aren’t the team. Alabama has plenty of other talented players. But they could very 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 page and we always try to be on the same page because we understand our roles,” Young said.
In a way, this group photo shows that they know their roles very well.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.
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