TAMPA — The gifts remain glaring, a smorgasbord of tangible qualities evident since puberty: burst and brawn, wheels and wing span.
Bucs 25-year-old rookie outside linebacker Andre Anthony owes his NFL opportunity to all that.
“He’s a height, weight and speed guy,” coach Todd Bowles said.
Arguably no player from Tampa Bay’s 2022 draft class possesses greater upside than the last guy it selected, with the 248th overall pick. The problem is that lofty ceiling has a history of cracks that require patchwork.
As a result, a Power Five prospect with draft first- or second-day afterburners became a third-day afterthought.
“If you knew the history of him to where he was, you could see the arrow was up,” said Bill Johnson, Anthony’s position coach at LSU. “The arrow was pointing so much up. So hopefully the arrow’s still going up, and I’m not sure that (the Bucs) didn’t get a pretty good pick.”
As rookie dark horses go, the Bucs might have a Rich Strike on their hands, health permitting. As an Under Armour All-American at a New Orleans prep dynasty and later an edge rusher at LSU, Anthony brandished every NFL prerequisite except consistently good health.
But the knee ligament he tore in September mended expeditiously enough for Anthony (6 feet 4, 251 pounds) to run the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds at LSU’s pro day in April and to participate extensively at Tampa Bay’s rookie minicamp and organized team activities.
“He came back, actually when we drafted him, in better shape than I thought he would (be), and he’s still getting his feet wet,” Bowles said.
By training camp, when he’ll find himself in a fairly crowded outside linebacker group, Anthony insists he’ll be 100 percent. To this point in his career, full strength (or full eligibility) has been fleeting but mesmerizing.
“I think if he was as healthy in college as he was in high school, you’re talking about a first-, two-day draft pick than that last day,” said Brice Brown, Anthony’s coach at New Orleans’ Edna Karr High, which went 9-5 in Anthony’s senior year before winning four consecutive state titles.
“It’s amazing that he’s still been able to run 4.5, 4.6 with the injuries he’s had. That tells you how gifted he was athletically.”
Raised by a single mom in the high-crime New Orleans East district, Anthony transferred to Edna Karr for his senior year of high school after the all-boys academy he attended was deemed a failing school by the state and shuttered.
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He had to miss his first three games that season but ultimately collected 56 tackles, eight sacks and offers from virtually every Power Five program in the country. The following spring, he ran the anchor leg for the school’s 800-meter relay team that placed third in its division at the state indoor track meet.
“And believe it or not, Alabama offered him before LSU,” Brown said.
Upon arriving in Baton Rouge with a 2016 signing class that included fellow four-star prospect and now-Bucs linebacker Devin White, Anthony had to sit out his inaugural season because of academic issues regarding his high school coursework, Louisiana media reported. A Lisfranc joint injury in the 2017 preseason required the insertion of a screw in his foot and another year on the sideline.
By then, he essentially was two years behind his classmates. While White was putting together an All-America season culminating with the 2018 Butkus Award (best college linebacker), Anthony — 15 months older than White — was logging the first collegiate action of his career. Between 2018 and 2019, he appeared in 22 games but made only five starts.
“First of all, when he first got (to LSU), he played behind some pretty damn good players, so it wasn’t so much him,” said Johnson, who arrived in Baton Rouge in 2019. “And then when I got there, he didn’t really play in (2019) when we had (Jaguars 2020 first-round draft pick) K’Lavon (Chaisson) and some of those guys. So he was just playing behind some good players.
“And then the next year, the COVID year, everything was jacked up.”
Anthony’s breakthrough year was abridged. In a rebuilding season shortened by the pandemic, Anthony started eight of 10 games in 2020, totaling 24 tackles and a team-best 5½ sacks in what was seen as a precursor to a monstrous 2021.
For three games, it was.
Anthony ranked among the nation’s leaders in tackles for loss (4) and sacks (3½) when he tore his ACL away from the ball in the season’s third game, against Central Michigan. Shortly before the injury, he had returned a fumble 33 yards for a touchdown.
“Coming into it, I started off on fire and I felt that was the year for me to really take off, and it was taking off,” Anthony, who graduated from LSU in August 2020, told reporters the day he was drafted. “Granted, the ACL happened, but it was one of those situations that I wasn’t going to let that get me down.”
Those glimpses of greatness, and Anthony’s brisk recovery, were enough to prompt the Bucs to snag him with the last of their eight draft picks. Bowles said he has noticed Anthony gaining more confidence in his knee and expects him to “take off” in training camp.
Barring yet another scratched launch.
“He was a guy that had to overcome a lot,” White said. “He got injured a lot at LSU.
“But I think one thing, he always kept his head on straight, and we knew he was a great player because he went to one of the best schools in college (football), so we know he’s a great player and he can play on this level.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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