Nebraska is looking for three new starting linebackers for a defense that was poor against the run last season, and a healthy Zaire Anderson would be a big boost for the Huskers.
Anderson (5 feet 11, 220 pounds), a junior from Philadelphia, arrived at Nebraska last season via junior college and promptly moved into the rotation at linebacker. But he suffered a torn ACL, missed 11 games and was granted a medical redshirt. Thing is, he tore the ACL in practice and started the third game of the season, against Arkansas State, without knowing the severity of the injury.
He returned in time for spring practice, but didn't play all that well. Now that he is back to 100 percent, Anderson has all but sewn up a starting job at one of the outside spots.
"The plays that I'm making now, I couldn't make in spring ball because I was hesitant," he told the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star.
Anderson arrived at Nebraska last summer amid a lot of hype. While undersized for a linebacker, Anderson has good speed, can go sideline-to-sideline and showed a knack in junior college for making big plays, something the Huskers lacked on defense last season. He is considered a solid cover guy, so he should be a three-down linebacker.
"He's starting to learn the whole package now," linebacker coach Ross Els told huskeronline.com. "Before I think Zaire was pretty comfortable with his position, but now he's starting to understand where all the linebackers and secondary guys fit in, which helps him tremendously. He can communicate with everybody now, so that's probably been the biggest jump he's been able to make."
Nebraska has a legitimate shot at returning to the Big Ten championship game. The offense should be better than it was last season, while the defense looks to have more speed. The Huskers allowed 27.6 points and 360.6 total yards per game, including 192.5 yards on the ground. The schedule helps, too: Nebraska has eight home games and two of the four road games are against middling Big Ten foes Minnesota and Purdue.
Whether Nebraska wins the division likely comes down to how the Huskers fare in a four-game stretch from Nov. 2-23 that sees them play Northwestern, Michigan on the road, Michigan State and Penn State on the road. A stronger defense obviously would help matters.
Mike Huguenin can be reached at email@example.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.