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Merely four practices into spring football drills, nobody is anointing Nebraska as a top 10-level defense.

At this early stage, it's difficult to say anything definitive about the group's future.

Except for this: The first four practices felt much better than the first four last spring.

"I think it's way different," said senior weakside linebacker Zaire Anderson. "Some people were scared to communicate on the field last spring because they didn't want to mess up the next person."

Um, think for a second about that quagmire.

"But now, everyone knows what they're doing," Anderson said. "Everyone's communicating. Everyone's having fun. Last spring, it wasn't really fun. Nobody knew what they were doing. The coaches were yelling at us. It was rough."

It showed once the season began.

Wyoming, which ended up losing seven games, racked up 602 yards in the opener. UCLA reeled off 38 unanswered points. South Dakota State's Zach Zenner ran loose as if he were Eric Dickerson. Minnesota simply outmuscled the Blackshirts.

A significant aspect of Nebraska's problems was too many young and/or inexperienced faces in key spots. Anderson was among no fewer than a dozen Husker defenders playing significant roles for essentially the first time at NU.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said the defense entered last spring without a solid foundation.

"We're so much further ahead right now than what I knew we were going to be even going into last season," he said. "I mean, it's like night and day. It just gives you more options. You can do more. That — doing more — isn't always the answer. But building on a foundation is kind of what this defense is all about. Last spring and fall, we had guys just trying to survive out there."

Anderson was a case in point. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Philadelphia native had played in only three games in 2012, starting one, before suffering a knee injury.

"At the beginning of last season, I was a little nervous, and not sure what to do," he acknowledged this week. "But now I'm confident in everything I do."

Anderson finished last season as the team's fifth-leading tackler with 52 stops, including six for loss. The top five tacklers return, led by Corey Cooper (91), David Santos (87), Randy Gregory (66) and Michael Rose (66).

Nebraska's defense actually had some strong showings down the stretch last season (at Michigan and Penn State come to mind), and the 24-19 bowl win against Georgia might help defenders sustain confidence this offseason. The Huskers wound up 40th nationally in total defense after surrendering 370.8 yards per game.

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"We know we have a bunch of younger guys coming back, and that if we keep progressing, we can take it to the next level and be a great defense," Anderson said.

If Nebraska expects to play great defense this season -- top-10 defense -- it'll have to possess the proper mindset. It'll have to play with unyielding confidence and poise. Practice observers currently see a spirited and cohesive crew. Raw talent is evident. As is confidence.

"We were soft (last spring)," said sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander, one of the best young defenders. "We're trying to bring back the Blackshirt mentality and let the offense know we run Nebraska."

Anderson is a key piece to the defense, in part because he's easily one of the most explosive downhill tacklers. In an interview after practice Wednesday, he began to say he now understands Pelini's defense with 100 percent certainty.

He stopped himself.

Actually, that's unrealistic, he said.

"You can never be 100 percent," he said. "I think there's always something to learn. You always have to develop, every day."

The way Anderson sees it, there are three levels of learning. He occupies the second level in that he knows his assignments well, he said. But he strives for the third level, where "you're basically like a coach out there."

In that regard, Anderson is trying to be more vocal.

"I'm not vocal in our meetings. When I'm around a bunch of people, I get a little shy," he said. "But once my adrenaline starts to rush, I start to speak up.

"I'm just trying to work on knowing my assignments even better, giving good effort and helping the younger guys out more -- just developing my game all around."

The part about helping the young guys is particularly important to Anderson.

"I want them to come to me if they need help," he said.

Anything to avoid the headaches of last season.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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