• Video Below: Tuesday's Husker football practice and "The Big Red Today Show"
* * *
LINCOLN — Nebraska weakside linebacker Zaire Anderson heard his right knee pop during a drill last week. He thought so little of it that he started his first game for the Huskers four days later.
But an MRI exam Tuesday revealed that Anderson made three tackles on a torn ACL that will require season-ending surgery.
“I'm really devastated right now,” Anderson said.
He sat out Tuesday's practice in sweatpants but still wore his No. 8 jersey. NU will explore medical redshirt options for the junior from Philadelphia.
“Unfortunate for him,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said. “He was really coming along. But it is what it is. And he'll recover fully. Surprised all of us. But the kid's hurting.”
In Anderson's absence, NU will rely on senior Alonzo Whaley and redshirt freshman David Santos, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. Emergency options may include true freshmen Thomas Brown and Michael Rose.
“But I don't know if we're ready to go down that road,” Papuchis said of burning either Brown or Rose's redshirt.
A 6-foot 220-pounder, Santos also played significant snaps in Saturday's 42-13 win against Arkansas State. He and Anderson replaced Whaley, who started NU's first two games but struggled in coverage and with tackling in a 36-30 loss at UCLA.
Papuchis said Santos already made progress in the Huskers' 4-3 base defense, but has “really kind of come along in our nickel and dime packages” in recent weeks. That makes Santos a candidate to stay on the field for more opponent personnel groupings, such as a three-wide receiver set.
The 6-1, 230-pound Whaley played primarily against two-back, two-tight end offenses last year before earning the starting weakside job this fall. Papuchis said Whaley took the demotion as a “team leader” and will have a “key role” in NU's 4-3 defense.
“He's taken everything in stride,” Papuchis said. “Alonzo knows why things played out the way they played out. He knows we love him and respect him. It has nothing to do with who he is as a guy. We were just trying to switch some things up with different combinations to give us more success.”
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Discuss the impact of the injury on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
Anderson, a four-star recruit out of Riverside (Calif.) Community College, was one of those options. Despite having a torn ACL, he had success running sideline to sideline with some of Arkansas State's skill players, and linebackers coach Ross Els expected Anderson to be a factor in coverage.
“I can stand on it right now, so I just don't understand,” said Anderson, who will have surgery next week and is expected to fully recover. The one positive, he added, is that he'll be able to learn the defense better.
Rose and Brown were part of the Huskers' ballyhooed 2012 class of linebackers. NU's depth chart lists the 5-11, 230-pound Rose as third-string middle linebacker while coaches might groom the 6-2, 210-pound Brown to play the hybrid role that Eric Martin does now. Brown was coming along quickly, Papuchis said, until an ankle sprain set him back for a couple of weeks during camp.
“Thomas is an explosive athlete,” Papuchis said. “We've tried him out as that pass-rusher kind of guy. ... It still remains to be determined what we're going to do with him.”
The fourth linebacker from the 2012 class, Jared Afalava, arrived late to camp and will redshirt.
Anderson's injury comes as Nebraska experimented more Saturday with a 3-4 look that had Martin — a senior end — moving between linebacker and line. Papuchis said the three-man line allows the Huskers “to be a lot more balanced in the way you deploy your guys.”
“Sometimes against quarterback-run teams — especially the one that we played a week ago — having that balance is critical,” Papuchis said. “You can get a little bit more athletic, because whoever that fourth guy is — whether it be a D-end or hybrid guy like Eric Martin — gives you a little bit more speed on the field.
“There's some upside to it. It's always been a piece of what we do, and depending on who we play, it'll be more of a factor.”