LINCOLN — There wasn’t a play or practice moment when Zaire Anderson knew his surgically-repaired knee no longer would slow him down.
That memory doesn’t exist because Anderson doesn’t allow himself to dwell on the ACL injury he suffered in Nebraska’s third game of 2012 against Arkansas State.
Anderson’s focus was to get back on the field for 2013 and play as many snaps at outside linebacker as he could.
“It never was in my mind,” Anderson said. “I was just (focused on) conditioning and getting back into the football mindset. Just getting back on the field, I think that probably was the hardest part for me.”
Now that the hard part is over for the 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior from Philadelphia, he is zeroed in on being an every-down linebacker for one of the Huskers’ deepest position groups.
His play throughout last season is part of the reason NU defensive coaches were so high on Anderson after spring drills.
They did everything but officially declare Anderson a starter for Nebraska’s Aug. 30 home opener against Florida Atlantic.
There has been no indication that has changed through the first two weeks of fall camp, and that’s fine with Anderson as he aims to stay on the field for as many snaps as possible.
“I felt I could be an every-down ’backer (last year),” Anderson said. “But it didn’t fall my way. So this year I’m going to take advantage of my opportunity.”
After playing three games in 2012, Anderson broke through in the fourth game of 2013. Anderson’s 10 tackles against South Dakota State matched his career total.
Three games later, Anderson topped his career high with 11 stops in the Huskers’ 34-23 loss at Minnesota. Anderson’s encore was a six-tackle day Nov. 9 at Michigan that included his top hit of the season.
After overpowering, then shoving Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint out of his path, Anderson flattened quarterback Devin Gardner after tackle Aaron Curry forced Gardner from the pocket. That play came midway through the first quarter and helped the Huskers set the tone for a 17-13 victory.
It’s those kinds of plays that fellow NU linebacker Michael Rose — who suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier in camp — said drives Anderson to a higher level.
“He plays angry,” Rose said. “You can see it. And it’s a controlled anger. I think Zaire understands it’s his senior year, his last year to do something in college. He has aspirations to play in the NFL, which I think he can do as long as he continues to build upon what he’s been doing.”
Rose and Anderson say that hard-driving style has helped him mature on and off the field.
“Just understand what (coach) Bo (Pelini) was trying to do defensively,” Anderson said. “That was the biggest thing I had to adjust to.”
Rose said Anderson’s ability to take constructive thoughts goes even beyond what he hears from Pelini.
“His maturity level, his ability to be coached, his ability to take criticism from me or any of our teammates, or from a coach … his maturity level has risen,” Rose said. “I think he’s just hungry.”
Anderson agrees but added it’s more than just himself who sees what’s possible.
“I like everyone’s work ethic and I like everyone’s mindset just to get better,” Anderson said. “You’ll see when fall comes.”
World-Herald staff writer Jon Nyatawa contributed to this report.
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