May 12, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (51) participates in drills during rookie camp at the Methodist practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Not that coach DeMeco Ryans is partial to the University of Alabama, but it’s possible he could have four players from the Crimson Tide in his starting lineup with the Texans this season.
Ryans, born and bred in Alabama before the Texans made him their second-round draft choice in 2006, could have two second-year players — linebacker Christian Harris and receiver John Metchie III – starting with two rookies – defensive end and linebacker Henry To’oTo’o — at some point this season.
Nick Saban didn’t have the luxury of coaching Ryans, but he did coach Anderson, Harris, Metchie, and To’oTo’o, which is helping them make the transition from the Crimson Tide to the NFL. Since he arrived at NRG Stadium as the third overall pick in the draft and got on the field for the first time at the rookie minicamp, Anderson has been listening to everything Ryans is preaching to his players.
“Coming from Bama, I kind of understood everything he was talking about,” Anderson said. “Being intentional, swarming to the ball (and) having that special relentless mindset. Being a part of the team, being family, and being together, that’s the biggest message he’s been trying to express to the team. It’s been easy for me to grasp, and that’s why I’m super-excited to be a part of this team.”
Anderson (6-4 243), the highest-rated defensive prospect in the draft, has a multitude of reasons to be “super-excited” to be playing for Ryans, including having To’oTo’o as his teammate for a third consecutive season. For the last two years, they excelled together on Saban’s defense.
Asked for his reaction to the Texans selecting To’oTo’o in the fifth round, Anderson said, “I picked up my phone super-quick and said, ‘Let’s go.’ I texted it to him in all caps.
“Just to have a presence like that in the building, somebody I played with (and) got to connect with, I know the type of person he is — very smart, a high IQ. He’s going to bring his A-game every day and bring others along with him. I’m really excited for him to be here, to be a part of this, and to be playing with him again.”
The Texans paid dearly to acquire Anderson while To’oTo’o fell into their laps with the 167th overall pick. He’d been projected to go in the third round. Anderson was projected to be the first defensive player drafted, and general manager Nick Caserio traded with Arizona to move up from 12 to third to get him.
The Cardinals included a fourth-round pick in the trade. They swapped first-round positions with the Texans, who gave them a second-round pick this year and first- and third-round selections next year. The trade places more pressure on Anderson, who has the talent to be voted NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“They made it very clear: Just come here and be you,” Anderson said about his coaches. “Have fun, bring energy, and just be together. I think that’s the biggest thing they harp on that I’m really understanding – there’s no pressure. You’ve been playing football all your life. You’ve been doing what you love to do since you were 5 years old. That’s what I really appreciate about the players and the coaches here.
“I haven’t done anything yet. I’ve got to earn it. I’ve got to go out there and get the trust from the guys, keep connecting with them, and keep paying attention to everything I’m doing and working hard. It’s very exciting. The team has been everything I could imagine. The coaches are hyped. They have an energy we feed off of.”
Ryans and new defensive coordinator Matt Burke are going to use Anderson as an edge rusher in their four-man front. Most of the time, he’ll play a five-technique and line up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. In college, he lined up most of the time in a standing position but also in a three-point stance. They want to take advantage of his quickness, change of direction, moves, strength, and closing burst to the quarterback that made him one of the nation’s premier pass rushers.
“At Alabama, they kind of prepared us for a little of everything — hand in the dirt (and) playing a two-point stance — so (it) made me versatile,” he said. “I was already playing a five-technique (so) I’m kind of used to playing on the outside pad of the tackle. I’ve been playing that since high school.”
It didn’t take long for Anderson to see the substantial differences in going from Alabama to Houston.
“One of the biggest things for me going from college to the NFL is everything is way more detailed,” he said. “Clean up the moves I already use and making sure I’m perfecting all those moves. Really dial into my technique and making sure I’m detailed with my hand placement, footwork, and everything like that.
“(There are) a lot more sacrifices to make to grasp everything the coaches are telling you to do. The difference from college is you have so much more free time, so you have to find a routine and know what you’re going to do. Everything is just detail. The biggest thing is learning the language, verbiage and understanding what they want. That’s been the biggest adjustment.”
Anderson, who won the Rotary Lombardi Award in December, believes he’s developing a bond with Ryans that goes behind them starring at Alabama.
“One of the biggest things I was hoping and praying for (was) whatever head coach I get (that) we have the same mentality,” Anderson said. “God blessed me, and I was fortunate enough to be in this program to share that with a coach who has the same mentality as me — the same grind, grit, and relentless mindset. It’s going to be easy for me to grasp what he’s saying and what he’s trying to get across to the team.”
Grasping is one thing, but carrying it to the field is another. Anderson has the talent, work ethic, and character the Texans believed in strong enough to make the boldest trade in franchise history for a player they think can become a perennial All-Pro selection.
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).