TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Bryce Young won the Heisman Trophy and Will Anderson is a two-time winner of the Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player.
Now, Alabama’s two biggest stars are headed to the NFL, where teams can take up the debate over which one is the best — or most needed.
Alabama’s poised and playmaking quarterback Young and pass rushing linebacker Anderson Jr. made the seemingly no-brainer call Monday to declare for the NFL draft, where both juniors could contend for the top spot.
Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, and the two-time unanimous All-American Anderson announced their decisions to skip their senior seasons two days after leading Alabama to a 45-20 victory over Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. Tailback Jahmyr Gibbs and safety Brian Branch also are heading to the NFL.
They endeared themselves to Crimson Tide faithful even more by not joining the ranks of bowl opt-outs among NFL prospects. Young passed for 321 yards and five touchdowns in New Orleans.
He and Anderson have graduated.
“I’m very proud of the way these guys have represented the program, not only the way they played on the field but the kind of character as people,” Saban said. “The academic success that they’ve had.
“These guys showed tremendous leadership and character to make a decision to play in the Sugar Bowl, which I think impacted the entire team with the example that they set.”
Young got a loud ovation from Alabama fans when he was substituted out for backup Jalen Milroe in the fourth quarter, and later got a salute from Kansas State coach Chris Klieman.
“That’s what college football is about. I was happy Bryce played,” Klieman said after the game. “That was really good for college football and really good for kids to see.”
Now, both are expected to be top-five draft picks and contenders for the No. 1 spot in April.
“It is pretty cool, but it just speaks volumes to the type of person Bryce is,” Anderson said. “He’s a competitor just like me. We have the same mindset, same mentality.
“I think that’s why we’re so close because we’re kind of the same person. It’s super exciting to see a teammate of yours in the same position as you that you know has worked his butt off every day.”
Added Young: “I think that really speaks volumes to the program and the players I’ve been blessed to play with.”
Young, who arrived from California as one of the nation’s top recruits, started the past two seasons after backing up current New England Patriots starter Mac Jones during a national championship run in 2020.
“Sitting my freshman year was something I hadn’t done before,” Young said. “It was hard. I’m a competitor. I wanted to play, but it was a blessing in disguise. Being able to learn from Mac and being able to watch that offense, that team, operate and being able to be there for every step of the way, it really helped me.”
He finished with 8,356 passing yards and 80 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions. Young passed for 3,328 yards and 32 touchdowns with five interceptions last season, making him the first Alabama quarterback with two 3,000-yard seasons.
Anderson is one of the top pass rushers in Alabama history and is even more decorated than Young. He is only the second two-time Nagurski Trophy winner and he also won both the Lombardi Award and Lott IMPACT Trophy as a junior.
He finished his three-year career with 34 1/2 sacks and 62 tackles for loss, behind only Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas in school history.
Anderson finished fifth in the 2021 Heisman voting after racking up 17 1/2 sacks and 34 1/2 tackles for loss. He had 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss this past season.
Gibbs, a Georgia Tech transfer, ran for 926 yards and seven touchdowns and gained 444 yards on a team-leading 44 catches. Anderson thinks any team that drafts Gibbs is “going to get a special guy.”
“He’s very good, very athletic, can move,” he said. “I’m super excited to see what his future is. His cuts are ridiculous. His top-end speed is crazy. Trying to catch him downhill is crazy.”
Branch, also a projected first-rounder, announced his decision on social media hours after the other three players declared for the draft in a news conference with Saban. He had 90 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, three sacks and two interceptions.
“I’ve developed so much since my freshman year and because of Alabama I’m confident that I’m prepared to take my game to the next level,” Branch said.
They leave a team that fell short of playoff and title expectations after losing to Tennessee and LSU on the final plays.
After three years together, Anderson could finally get a chance to actually sack Young in the NFL after having to hold back in practice.
“If I get the opportunity sometime next year, I’ve got to try to make sure I talk a little smack to him when I do it,” he said.