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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Greg Bishop

Two of the Biggest Talents in the Draft Paved Parallel Lines to Get Here

Two NFL draft prospects who are often described as “generational talents” might seem like opposites, counterpoints. One plays defense, at a premium position, and his main focus is terrorizing quarterbacks. He starred for a traditional college power that continually ranks among the country’s top teams. The other plays offense, at a position that’s perpetually discounted in the modern NFL, and his focus centers on taking pressure off quarterbacks. He starred for a traditional college power that’s going through the lean years, scuttling back toward pinnacles this program hasn’t reached in nearly two decades.

And yet, the defensive player, edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. of Alabama, and the offensive player, running back Bijan Robinson of Texas, share far more in common than anyone might expect. In fact, their respective paths to being “generational talents” started in the same place, with the same player.

That’s right. While growing up in Georgia, Anderson played running back, trucking youth opponents even with footballs tucked under his arm. He wore No. 28 because of one back in particular, an Oklahoma star who ran like a linebacker (meaning into and right through defenders). When Anderson thinks of generational talents, he starts there, with Adrian Peterson. “I was an outside kid, for real,” he says in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “But that was the one dude I tried to be like.”

Same for Robinson, for more obvious reasons. When he thinks of generational talents, he first mentions LeBron James. But then, he, too, in a separate interview with SI, invokes Peterson as the NFL player who most embodies this particular praise. Peterson made playing running back cool, because of how he ran—like a linebacker. “That’s the guy,” Robinson says. And, according to draft analysts, the closest comparison for his pro potential.

Robinson isn’t aware of Anderson’s love for the same player. When told, he says, “That’s pretty cool. I know a lot of linebackers who emulated Peterson, which is pretty weird.”

How would he, a running back forever, do in a tackling drill against Anderson, a running back briefly, before he outgrew the position and came to flatten them? Could Robinson imagine that collision? “Oh, yeah,” he says. “I’d tackle him.”

Strong words. Fair enough. For two so-called generational talents, anything seems possible. Neither set out to become that, to be described as that. But here they are, both slated to go in the first round, with Anderson a lock and Robinson a mystery. And, with the draft looming in just less than a week, both spoke with SI about the notion of greatness and the phrase generational talents, plus what they’re hoping for and where they fit, both in the NFL and in terms of such greats.

Bijan Robinson: To me, a generational talent is a guy who can play at a high level for a long time. At least 10 years and above. A guy that can make an instant impact, where everyone knows, this dude is different.

Will Anderson Jr.: When people say “generational talent,” they don’t just see what you do on the field but what you do off it, like just being a complete person, all the right characteristics, the right character. That’s what makes you generational.

Robinson: He’s right. For me to be considered that, I want to change a program, in so many positive ways, so even people that don’t follow football know I’m a guy who has done everything the right away. If you’re going to be that guy, you have to be complete.

Neither prospect spent much time worrying about their place in the larger football universe when they began their respective careers (at roughly the same time). Robinson absorbed lessons from one grandfather, Cleo, who worked as a Pac-10/Pac-12 official for three decades. Cleo became a father figure to Robinson growing up, and he often hammered home the same point. You’ll be blessed to do so many great things. But you gotta learn to do it the right way. Humble, respect, be positive. As a ref, Cleo had seen all kinds of greatness, but he preferred that kind the most. He gave his grandson the mindset that Robinson still carries with him.

Robinson was named a unanimous All-American in 2022, the only UT running back to earn the honor this century.

Aaron Martinez/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Both prospects knew eventually that football carried a lot of potential for them, but that realization, naturally, came at different points.

Robinson: My eighth-grade year. I was like, O.K., this is what I want to do. I’ve been playing football since I was 5 years old. But that year, I really decided to pursue this. I got my first offer as a freshman, which, in Tucson [his hometown], is kind of unheard of. As soon as that happened, the offer, I saw something special for sure.

Anderson: My football picked up, heavy, my sophomore year in high school. I had that mentality. No matter what else I could bring on the field, it was going to make me a better man. When I got to college, being at Alabama, it really hit me. Like, you’re the type of player who got a chance to really do something special, with that type of mentality, for sure.

Both players transcended their teams in college. For Anderson, that meant joining a proud lineage of defensive linemen/edge rushers who starred for the Crimson Tide. As a true freshman in 2020, he announced his presence with 52 tackles, seven sacks and a forced fumble, thereby solidifying his nickname as “The Terminator.” His trajectory only shot upward from there, as Anderson notched 101 tackles and 17.5 sacks in his sophomore season, followed by a 51-tackle, 10-sack performance last year.

In both those campaigns, Anderson won the Nagurski Award and the Bednarik Award, two separate honors given by different bodies to college football’s top defender. He joined former Northwestern linebacker (and current head coach) Pat Fitzgerald as the only players to win the Nagurski twice. Last season, he also added the Lombardi Award, given to the country’s top lineman—all while studying for the finals he needed to pass to complete his communications degree in three years. “We might never see another player like him,” gushed one local sports columnist.

Anderson: It’s all preparation. You don’t see that stuff right away. But there’s a lot that goes into those moments and awards.

At this point, the question isn’t whether he’ll go in the top 10 but where.

Robinson also chose a college with a rich history of luminaries at his position. But he wasn’t exactly like Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams or Cedric Benson. For starters, he grew up in Arizona, where he amassed more than 7,000 yards rushing yards and set a state record with 114 touchdowns scored. In his senior season, he won Gatorade (state) player of the year honors. At one point during that campaign, he was averaging 25.5 yards per carry, which translated into his status as the nation’s most coveted high school running back. Reggie Bush even offered Robinson his retired No. 5 jersey to entice the prospect to take his talents to USC. Robinson’s freshman season at Texas proved uneven, though.

The flashes, like the 183-rushing-yard, three-touchdown day against Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, were captivating. But when Steve Sarkisian became the Longhorns’ new coach, he stated the obvious. In Robinson, he had a Lamborghini that had been parked too often in a sideline garage. The pair didn’t win a million games together, but Robinson did prove Sarkisian more than right. He floored evaluators with his speed-and-power combination, evoking, well, Peterson at Oklahoma. He blocked well, ranked among the best backs nationally at breaking tackles and proved adept at receiving, too, as Sarkisian moved him all over the field. And, in his final two games at Texas, when Sark asked him to carry the Longhorns toward a bowl game, he rushed 54 times for 422 yards. Naturally, he won the Doak Walker Award, bestowed annually on the nation’s top running back. But even then, he may not be selected in the first round, the drop due to no more than his chosen position.

Neither player views the generational tag as the burden it might signal to less-talented humans. Maximizing their talents is part of the plan; optimizing their impact, the end goal for both.

Robinson: God gave me a gift to be on the field. It’s pretty cool to be in a category like that, alongside all the great running backs who were considered generational talents. I look at it as an opportunity to change so many people’s lives. That’s the drive and the motive, the want to do something great.

Anderson: I’ve sacrificed so much time to lead into this. I don’t take it for granted. It’s an absolute blessing for me.

In another odd twist, both players have received nontraditional praise. For Robinson, it came from analysts and evaluators who long ago devalued running backs; for Anderson, from one of sports’ most famous curmudgeons, his college coach, Nick Saban. When Anderson met with Saban before his freshman season, he told his coach to ignore the positives, which he already knew, and shoot him straight on what he needed to improve.

Anderson was selected as the 2022 SEC Defensive Player of the Year by both the AP and the league coaches.

Gary Cosby Jr./USA TODAY Sports

Anderson: He respected me a lot, trust me, because I did everything the right way, from the first day I stepped on campus. I was committed, all in. I had to step up for my teammates at a very young age. Everybody respected me, had confidence in me.

Robinson: The position you play shouldn’t matter for generational talents, only the value I can bring to a team. I’m super versatile. Put me anywhere on the field. I want to set my own standard.

Told that his answer was thoughtful, but that he could have simply said, I’m better than those other backs, Robinson laughs. “Well,” he says, softly but firmly, “that, too.”

Another unexpected tie: these generational talents are often considered … nice? Anderson highlights his mother, Tereon, who pushed him to graduate from Alabama as much as she pushed him to play in the NFL. Both expected he would play only three seasons, then depart for pro football. But she still called his academic adviser pretty much daily, to ensure her son did both.

Anderson: I’d be like, O.K., Mom, I got it.

Meanwhile, even Robinson’s NIL endorsements come across as wholesome. His endorsement portfolio includes Lamborghini, naturally, but also his own mustard brand: Bijan Mustardson. When he announced he would leave Texas after three seasons, he went around the media room afterward, thanking reporters, one by one, for covering his career. If anything, Sarkisian told those same journalists, Robinson’s nice-guy demeanor hid the totality of his “competitive spirit.” The back asked Texas superfan Matthew McConaughey about a future acting career—he loves rom-coms!—and attended the same church every Sunday he was in Austin.

Robinson: That’s just me.

Since the 2010 draft, more than 20 Alabama defensive linemen have been selected. Anderson might be the best of all of them. He has been compared to Von Miller, among other sack artists. The more optimistic analysts can see Robinson going in the top 15. He’ll be a steal there or lower, most insist.

Anderson: I haven’t reached my full potential yet. I just need to stay true to who I am. That’s how I got to where I am.

So it goes for two generational talents who never saw themselves that way, who arrived there through work and repetition that birthed stardom, not the other way around. Now about that tackling drill …

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