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The coachable coach
Ex-KU running back McAnderson sharing his knowledge
By Tom Keegan (Contact)
Posted Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Photo by Nick Krug
Former Kansas University running back Brandon McAnderson, left, coaches the Lawrence High offense during a scrimmage in this file photo from Aug. 23. McAnderson is in his first season as an assistant coach at LHS.
High school football practice is creeping toward the finish line, and the rookie assistant coach is gathering up one, two, three, four footballs and carrying them off the field because that is what rookie assistant coaches do. They start at the bottom.
The fact that the assistant coach the previous year led the Orange Bowl champions in rushing and touchdowns doesn’t change that. Brandon McAnderson is a football coach who happens to be a local celebrity. He’s not a celebrity posing as a football coach.
McAnderson works for Lawrence High coach Dirk Wedd as the Lions’ running-backs coach. He works as a paraprofessional with special-education students at South Junior High for the coach’s wife, Junior Wedd.
“You know me, I don’t make a big scene out of being somebody, so a lot of them don’t know who I am,” McAnderson said of the South students. “I worked with a kid for three weeks, and he had no idea who I was. He said something to his brother. His brother knew who I was and had him bring in a football for me to sign. They shouldn’t know who I am unless they were huge fans. I felt like I was one of those guys who the real football fans were fans of me. I’m not much to look at.”
McAnderson never was about what others saw in him. He was about what he saw when he carried the football. He saw blockers and defenders and knew how to use the former to avoid the latter. His eyes were his best tools.
In a foot race, McAnderson would finish a distant fourth to Jake Sharp, Jocques Crawford and Angus Quigley. Yet, they can’t come close to duplicating what McAnderson did as a senior for Kansas.
How did McAnderson do it?
“I can stay at my full speed and run the ball,” McAnderson said. “If you’re not sure where you’re going or what you’re supposed to be doing you can run a 4.3 or a 4.2 and it’s not going to help you because you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m going to stay at my top speed the whole time. That’s what I notice. They don’t know what they’re seeing. They don’t have confidence in what they’re seeing. They’re slower to get there. I’m sure if they got out in the open field they’d be awesome. Nobody would be able to catch them. That’s something you’ve got to earn.”
In fairness, McAnderson had better blockers than KU has this season. Tackles Anthony Collins and Cesar Rodriguez and tight end Derek Fine are gone and physical slot receiver Dexton Fields has been sidelined by injury. But good running backs don’t look at it that way. They don’t look for excuses.
“The way I see it,” McAnderson said, “it’s just a thing where a running back can make an O-lineman better. You’ve got a veteran back and you have a young lineman, give them an opportunity to make a block before making a decision. You make decisions five yards in the backfield and you’re not going to give them much of a chance to get to their blocks. It goes both ways.”
That knack McAnderson had for making tacklers miss, for knowing just when and where to cut, often looked like an instinct, more than a learned skill. Not so, he said.
“I wouldn’t say necessarily I was born with that,” he said. “When I had an opportunity to watch somebody play and a coach would say, ‘Well, I don’t want you to do it that way,’ I’d make a mental note of that. They don’t want him to do it that way, I better not do it that way. Another guy goes. He does it a certain way. The coach says, ‘I like that.’ Do it like that. Take those pointers as you go along. People can say what they want about mental reps, but it’s the real thing.”
Mental repetitions were what set McAnderson apart, he believes.
“I don’t think there’s anything special that I did, but my mental preparation is better because I sat and watched for three years,” he said. “Then as a blocker, I sat and watched how they did it. I sat on the sidelines watching, so when I had an opportunity, I had already had a million opportunities in my mind and it was just as I pictured it. I didn’t have to think about what I needed to be doing because I had never done it before. I had run the ball what, 40 times maybe (56 to be exact) my whole career before my last season, but mentally I had gone through it a million times and imagined myself sprinting down the field a million times before I had an opportunity to do it.”
McAnderson uses “we” when talking about both Lawrence High football and KU football. He knows both offenses well. He knows KU’s well enough to know that if you don’t know it, you can’t fake it.
“We don’t have an offense up there that’s a game of he’s going to block him, they’re going to double him, he’s going to block him and you run behind him,” he said. “That’s not the offense. It’s make him go over here, so this guard can clip him off or push him into this player so our wide receiver has time to get there. It’s a timing offense and if you don’t take the mental reps seriously and accept the coaching, it’s going to be tough for you. That’s a coaching staff that works tirelessly. Believe me, they work tirelessly. So you just have to soak it up, soak up the coaching.”
Low man wins
McAnderson doesn’t run the football for Kansas anymore, but he still cares about those who do. His assessment of his successors sounds a lot like the opinions expressed by head coach Mark Mangino in some areas.
McAnderson obliged when asked to assess Quigley, Crawford and Sharp.
The way he talked about each back, never searching for the right word, knowing just how much to dumb down the analysis to the point it would be understood showed he has an abundance of the most important tool for any teacher. He is a masterful communicator.
“From afar, my coaching point would be to get his pads down because there aren’t many 6-2, 6-3 running backs that look like him,” McAnderson said of Quigley. “He’s a studly looking guy. I talked to him a few weeks ago and told him keep your head up and wait for an opportunity. You don’t know what can happen. You just want to make more of an impact every week. Make a bigger impact this week than last week and do it every week. He’s always had the ability. He just doesn’t do the mental work, so he gets out there and he’s not used to doing it. Now he’s a four-year player, so that’s him not really taking advantage, but now he has a shot and let’s see what he’s got. I like him. I think he’s a good ballplayer.”
Mangino forever harps on the need for Quigley to run with his pads down, but Quigley hasn’t been able to do so consistently. Is it a physical coordination issue or a mental focus one?
“I want to say it’s mental focus,” McAnderson said. “He can do it. He ran a guy’s helmet off his head, the guy on Sam Houston State. And one time when we had our bowl practices last year he almost killed Drew Dudley getting his pads down. It’s not that he can’t do it. It’s that he won’t do it consistently. The guy is a terror when he gets his pads down because he has the ability to run through somebody and keep going and stay at top speed.”
How can Quigley get to the point he’s doing it consistently and why is it so important?
“He can get there by watching himself,” McAnderson said.
“A lot of times, between him and Crawford, they don’t fall forward. Falling forward is simple. If your pads are forward, you’ll fall forward. We don’t fall forward very often. It gets you an extra yard or two. It gets you third and four instead of third and six or second and four instead of second and six. I can understand why Coach Mangino gets on him, because that’s effort. That’s ‘I want to get more yards, so I’m going to put my pads down and fall forward.’”
Any other advantages to running low to the ground?
“Primarily, there’s no target,” said McAnderson, listed at 6-feet tall and 235 pounds as a senior. “If I got my pads down so they can only see the top of my pads and my knees coming full speed like pistons, the top of my pads and my knees like pistons, no target. Darren Sproles, he’s running through people’s hip line. Now, he’s short, but still he doesn’t run standing straight up and he’s only 5-6. So if I’m 6-2, what makes me think I don’t need to be down? There are a couple of pictures of me in the newspaper on people’s hip line. Now, I’m shorter than Angus, but if I can get there, he can get there. And Jocques can get there. They just have to focus on it.”
Asked for his impressions of Crawford, McAnderson went back to the same point.
“He also gets tackled sideways and that’s frustrating to see anybody get tackled sideways,” McAnderson said. “Pad level makes that happen. That should be routine. Pad level is all the time, all the time. We have a kid here (at LHS) who never played football and learned pad level and has improved leaps and bounds just by lowering his pad level. Tyrae Jenkins, good kid. It’ll give you an advantage you already have, just by nature. The low man wins. That’s football. So it doesn’t change you as a back, and it doesn’t keep you from running any faster. Barry Sanders, you never saw him standing up and that’s why he was so effective. People just don’t have targets on you. There’s nothing to hit. You’re hitting their pads, you’re hitting their knees, boom, I’m falling forward. The biggest hit in the world, I’m falling forward. And that’s something that’s in you. It’s not a talent. It’s a discipline. You just have to have the discipline to do it.”
Sharp averaged 5.6 yards a carry last season and just 3.3 so far this year, an indication the blocking isn’t the same.
“I love Jake,” McAnderson said. “He’s a good ballplayer. With him it’s more confidence than anything. He just has to barrel down and get through this. It’s a tough time. He hasn’t had many tough times in his career.”
As for McAnderson’s ball-carrying career, he’d like to think it’s not over. He mentioned possibly joining an offseason minor league professional football league and said he was going to get in shape after the football season. He has other options. He said the KU Alumni Association is interested in him coming to work there and is open to him continuing to work on Wedd’s staff. McAnderson said a friend also offered him a job in the financial-planning field.
College coaching prospect
Meanwhile, McAnderson’s high school coach enjoys having another McAnderson on his staff. Brandon’s brother, Devin, also is on the staff and their father, Ramon, coaches at South Junior High, a feeder school to Lawrence High.
“He’s one of those kids, he’s kind of like a Pied Piper,” Wedd said. “They respect the heck out of him for what he did at Lawrence High and Kansas. That carries a lot of weight with them. When he speaks, they listen.”
Having a name helps, but after a while, if the message lacks substance, the identity of the one talking grows meaningless. What he says packs a bigger punch than who he is, according to Wedd.
“He’s one of the most intelligent football minds I’ve been around in a long time,” Wedd said, predicting that if McAnderson wants to pursue a college coaching career he’ll be a huge success. “He went to KU when the program was down and five years later he was standing on a podium holding oranges. He knows what it takes to turn a program around. And he’s got the innate ability to relate to any type of kid. He’s just got one of those personalities when he walks in a room he fills the room up. Very dynamic and that’s so important. And he’s a winner. He doesn’t accept losing. It all goes back to he grew up in a family where football is important and went to a program and learned from the ground up how to be succesful. I don’t think there is any question he could be a great recruiter. He relates so well to kids, and moms and dads love him.”
McAnderson is about to become a dad himself.
“Yesterday, I was just a football player,” McAnderson said. “Now you’re married, your wife’s pregnant, you go from not having a job to you’ve got three people wanting to give you jobs. And I do still want to play football.”
His playing days may or may not be over, but there is no disputing his coaching days are just beginning and it could be a long, successful ride.