It was one of those brilliant sun-soaked Saturdays of September when Zaire Anderson chased down the Arkansas State quarterback from behind, producing the kind of roar that fills a stadium when new blood makes imaginations dance.
Then it was three days later, a Tuesday that had no brilliance about it. As teammates practiced, the Husker linebacker stood in a hallway, dressed in sweats and disappointment.
Anderson had just found out he’d been playing with a torn ACL. His 2012 season was over just as it appeared ready to take off.
A devastated Anderson spoke so quietly about the setback that day that his words could not be heard unless you leaned in inches from his face.
Painful at the time, perhaps serendipitous now, Anderson thinks. Had the injury not occurred, he would not be a Husker right now, plotting the big ideas he has for this 2014 season.
“I think it was a blessing,” said Anderson, quiet no more. “I had another year under my belt just to prove my time and show that I can be that guy.”
Had the injury not occurred, sophomore linebacker Michael Rose would not have been able to say last week: “Zaire is playing at a different level. He’s probably had the best spring out of all the linebackers.”
Working with the top unit as the WILL linebacker throughout the spring, and often one of the two backers on the field in Nebraska’s nickel package, Anderson has been easy to find this spring.
He's not quiet with his tackles — as punishing a hitter as there is on the defense — and not always quiet in his exuberance after making those tackles.
Ask running back Ameer Abdullah about trying to pass block in practice and there are two defenders he brings up. Randy Gregory is one. Anderson is the other.
“I tell them, ‘Try to beat me, try to bull rush me, give me the worst situation possible,’” Abdullah said. “Because, if I can block those guys, I’m going to be pretty good in the season.”
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Anderson arrived in Lincoln in 2012 from junior college. He arrived in the difficult position of being the next juco linebacker after Lavonte David.
Then came the injury. Then there was the battle early last season to find a role against spread-heavy teams, with Anderson battling Nathan Gerry to be the dime 'backer.
“With Zaire, it comes down to, 'Is he going to be prepared enough to understand what we’re trying to do defensively?'” Husker coach Bo Pelini said last September after Anderson saw limited snaps in early games.
“We’re planning on him right now being an every-down guy,” Pelini said Wednesday. “He’s shown the ability to do that. He’s probably been the most consistent linebacker for us through this spring. And I know the way Zaire works, he’s only going to keep getting better.”
As last season progressed, Anderson’s reps increased along with his consistency. Of his 52 tackles, 35 came in the final seven games.
That late-season surge gave Anderson plenty of confidence heading into this spring, where he's focused on becoming the type of linebacker you don't take off the field no matter the offensive scheme. Specifically, he says he’s put an emphasis on improving his coverage skills and knowing his run fits better.
“I learned about being a man, and not just playing with my athletic ability, but learning how to be an actual football player,” Anderson said. “Instead of being a freak athlete and just flying to the ball, now I know my assignments and what to do and what to expect out of offenses instead of just lining up and get to the ball.”
He said he learned something else: patience.
“Don’t get down on yourself if you’re not in the starting rotation,” he said. “Just try to get better at what you need to do. That’s the only thing you can control.”
Anderson is upbeat not only about his own progress, but also the nasty look the defensive line has had in the spring. If players such as Gregory, Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice, Aaron Curry and Greg McMullen can cause opponents fits, it only increases the opportunity for someone such as Anderson to improve his numbers in 2014.
“For a linebacker, that’s the best day you can have, when a line is not climbing up on you and you can just go to the ball, and fly to the ball,” he said.
Anderson certainly isn’t speaking quietly these days when he thinks of what this defense — the one he wouldn’t be a part of if not for that injury — can become in the months ahead.
“I think we can be a top-10 defense if we just keep working and making progress. I think we can be a great defense.”