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Anderson starts anew at linebacker

Zaire Anderson had a problem. After making the first start of his Nebraska career against Arkansas State just three weeks into the 2012 season, his right knee was swollen.

It was swollen on Sunday and swollen on Monday and swollen on Tuesday. The trainers didn’t think it was an ACL tear but they told Anderson to go get an MRI just in case.

It was an ACL tear, sustained before Anderson ever arrived at Nebraska. His season, one start and four total tackles old, was over.

This prompts two questions: One, how could Anderson perform on a knee like that without anyone noticing?

“I wasn’t trying to hide it, I just played through it,” Anderson said. “They didn’t know it was an ACL tear because I played the same.”

That makes question number two pretty intriguing for Nebraska fans: What’s Zaire Anderson like with a healthy knee?

You don’t replace a player like Lavonte David but the hope for Anderson last year was that he’d be Lavonte David-like. A junior college transfer with speed and a nose for the ball, you trade some assignment mistakes for pure athleticism. Coaches bring those players in for a reason–they can contribute quickly.

Five months after his season-ending surgery, Anderson starts anew. He says he’s already about two months ahead of schedule on his recovery. While both physically and mentally painful at the time, Anderson’s injury may end up helping Nebraska this spring and into the fall.

“I don’t think it slowed my development, I think it helped me out actually. Now I’m more into the playbook, I know everything and I really don’t have to depend on anybody like Will Compton to tell me what to do. I know what to do by myself,” Anderson said.

His position coach agrees.

“Long term, it’s always good for kid to sit out a year — learn the system, learn the ropes, get bigger, faster, stronger and get comfortable with a new school and city — and then play from then on,” linebackers coach Ross Els said. “At the time (of the injury), we really needed him so it wasn’t good that it happened, but we’re benefitting now.”

Anderson has been practicing with the first-team at Will linebacker, filling the spot vacated by David Santos whose experience — the only real experience the Huskers have back at linebacker — is being utilized at Mike so far this spring. Whether or not things stay that way depends not just on Santos’s development as the “quarterback of the defense” but also Anderson’s play on the outside.

Returning from an injury, particularly a knee injury, is a tricky thing. It’s easy for a player to question if he can do all the things he used to do, hard to play with the same abandon. So far this spring, that hasn’t been an issue with Anderson.

“You wouldn’t know that he had a serious injury six months ago,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “He looks good, he’s running well. We haven’t hit yet, but I haven’t seen any hesitation out of Zaire.”

Maybe that’s not surprising for a player whose major college career to this point has been more about waiting than playing. Now Anderson gets to do what he came to Nebraska to do–play. No time for hesitation in a new year with a repaired knee and new number. Anderson wore No. 8 last year. Now he’s No. 13.

But don’t read too much into that last part. It’s not some statement on rebirth.

“Everybody knows who Ameer (Abdullah) is so I had to get a different number,” Anderson said. “People kept mistaking me for him.”

It should be noted that there’s only one No. 13 on Nebraska’s roster at the moment.