When he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against perennial power Paulsboro as a freshman at Woodbury High School, Anthony Averett was regarded as a sports prodigy.

When he unfurled the second-best long jump in New Jersey history - 25 feet, 21/2 inches, bettered only by Olympic legend Carl Lewis back in 1979 - Averett was further recognized for his athletic ability.

And when he signed with Alabama on a football scholarship, Averett was heralded as the star of an unlikely tale of an unassuming kid from a tiny school in Gloucester County who somehow made his way to the nation'spremier college football program.

But because he was such a gifted athlete, and because everything on the football field and track seemed to come easy to him, Averett never was known for his grit, determination, and perseverance.

Until now.

Until he went to Alabama and disappeared (from the public eye, anyway).

Until he redshirted in his first year, then hardly played in his second year, then suffered a couple of injuries and hardly played again in his third year.

Until he absorbed all that, and kept working, and kept improving, and bided his time and emerged, now as a red-shirt junior, as a starting cornerback for the team that is ranked No. 1 in the nation and eyeing its second straight national championship.

"I knew it wouldn't be easy," Averett said the other day in a phone interview from Tuscaloosa, Ala. "Everybody here is a four- or five-star recruit. Everybody thinks they are going to come in here and play right away.

"But it's a process."

It would have been easy for Averett to pull the plug on his Alabama career, to concede that things weren't going to work out, to transfer to a program closer to home such as Rutgers or Temple or Maryland.

After all, Alabama doesn't wait for a player to develop. The Crimson Tide bring in three or four top cornerback recruits every year.

"He's a great athlete, but everybody down there is a great athlete," said Woodbury coach Al Mailahn, who was an assistant for the Thundering Herd during Averett's career. "Everybody at Woodbury is so proud of him because of how hard he worked, how he stuck with it.

"So many other guys would have given up."

Former Woodbury coach Zack Valentine, who was a mentor to Averett and remains close to his family, said his former star athlete was undervalued for his toughness and tenacity in high school because his speed and skill tended to overshadow his intangible qualities.

"He's from good stock," Valentine said. "He knew what it was going to be like down there. He knew it was going to be tough. He wanted that. He wanted the challenge."

Valentine said that Averett was "ready last year" but that a run of minor injuries - a partially torn biceps, a hyper-extended elbow, a broken finger - kept him out of action and pushed him down on the depth chart.

Averett said he heard from more than a few people that his best move would be to leave Alabama and try to restart his college career at another program. He admits he entertained those thoughts.

"You always have these times when you think, 'Oh, well, maybe it would be better someplace else,' " Averett said. "But you have to try to stay positive. I knew I was going through a process. I knew I would get better as a football player."

Valentine knew Averett was frustrated.

"But he didn't wallow in his frustation," Valentine said. "Some people let frustration make them give up. Anthony isn't that type of person. He wouldn't buckle."

Even when he wasn't playing much, Averett established himself as a superior athlete, even by Alabama standards. He ran the team's fastest 40-yard dash time in the last two spring practices, clocking in 4.30 seconds in 2015 and 4.34 seconds in 2016.

Averett said his big improvement has been in the "mental" side of the game.

"I knew I had a lot to work on," said Averett, who is on track to earn his degree in exercise science in December. "I wasn't really a cornerback in high school. As far as the mental side of things, I'm 10 times better than I was."

The 6-0, 180-pound Averett stepped up his game in the summer, moving Alabama coach Nick Saban to tell AL.com that "Anthony Averett has had a good, good camp."

Averett started Alabama's first four games. Entering Saturday's battle with Kentucky, Averett had 12 tackles, two pass breakups, and a forced fumble.

But those statistics don't define him any more than his 40-yard dash time or that incredible long jump. He always has been more than just a great athlete.

Battling through tough times to take the field for the best college football team in the nation, he's proven it.

"I've earned my spot," Averett said. "I knew it would be hard. I knew I had to pay the price and now it's paying off for me."