TAMPA – Justin Anderson doesn’t make any bones about it. Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend, he said, “saved my career.”
“He did,” said the Bulldogs’ senior right tackle. “When he came in, he just knew how to coach me. He knew how to work with me. I can’t thank him enough.”
Friend, who joined the Bulldogs as offensive line coach last February, accepted Anderson’s request to move back to offense from defensive line, where he had spent the previous season. Fast-forward to Monday’s Outback Bowl game against Michigan State, Anderson will start his 14th game at right tackle. Beyond that, he’s expected to continue his career in the NFL.
“He plays hard every week. He practices hard. He’s been a joy to coach,” Friend said of the player friends and family call “Bean.”He’s a dang good football player. But I don’t know how far he’s come. From Day 1 I’ve heard that but since I’ve been with him he’s been all about hard work and done a good job. I’m proud of Bean.”
Exiting his junior season, Anderson found himself in the kind of football purgatory that has trapped many a college player. By every account an exceptional athlete with SEC-caliber size and strength, Anderson nonetheless was a man without a position.
After playing his first two seasons on the offensive line, Anderson heartily accepted a move to defense. But about the time he got comfortable at noseguard, he suffered a debilitating turf-toe injury that sidelined him for most of the season. He ended up playing in one game and recorded one tackle.
“It was rough,” a 6-foot-5, 342-pound senior from Ocilla. “When I was asked to played defensive line, I was excited about it. I prayed about it. I said, ‘God, if this is something for me, then by all means please let me excel at it.’ I go out and had a good first few days in camp. Then I got hurt. I took that as a sign. Maybe this ain’t for you.”
A preliminary discussion with former offensive line coach Stacy Searels about moving back to the side of the ball was met with disinterest. Then Searels left to join the Texas Longhorns last January.
“I found out we were getting a coaching change and I thought, ‘hey, this is my time to get a fresh start,’” Anderson said. “So I took advantage of it.”
Friend, admittedly “looking for bodies” anyway, told Anderson they’d give him a look in the spring.
“I was a little slow,” Anderson said of spring ball. “I mean, I was in a lot of pain, you know. But [Friend] didn’t pressure me that much. He told me to come out and do the best I could and that’s what I did.”
Anderson exited spring practice without any setbacks, continued to rehab and, by summer workouts, was back to full speed.
“When camp came, I was 100 percent. I was ready to go and I’ve been going ever since,” he said.
It wasn’t instant success for Anderson. Both he and left tackle Cordy Glenn struggled in the opener against Boise State, which recorded six sacks. And there were some major breakdowns in the South Carolina game as well.
But the Bulldogs finally got the loose ends tightened down and the offensive line has played solid the rest of the way.
“Coach T and I were just talking about those two big guys,” head coach Mark Richt said this week. “We were talking about how Cordy was very close to possibly taking a shot at the NFL last year and Justin was playing noseguard and had been injured the whole time. We needed them to play and to stay healthy. They did and it’s been a blessing for us. We might not be here today if those guys didn’t come through.”
Now Anderson is preparing to play his last game as a Bulldog and he’s not sure he wants it to end.
“It’s been my best one yet,” Anderson said. “It’s been fun being a part of this team.”
But more football awaits Anderson. Friend predicts his career will continue in the NFL.
“There’s no question I think he can,” Friend said. “He’s got all the tools. He’s got grown-man strength and talent and he’s a team guy. He’s a quick-twitch kind of athlete so I wouldn’t be surprised if he could play either guard or tackle. That’s their job to decide. But I think he’s a heck of a football player,”
When I first got here I thought it was all guard. But after being with him enough, I thought he could do either one.