When he returned for the start of the 2013 season after working diligently to come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, Zaire Anderson found himself and his fellow Nebraska linebackers on a merry-go-round.
Like any other challenge he has faced since growing up in Philadelphia's Frankford section, Anderson accepted this one head-on. But needing to replace all three of the Cornhuskers' starting linebackers, coach Bo Pelini and his staff moved people around trying to find new starters in the right spots.
The job isn't quite finished yet - only one of the six linebackers in the Nebraska rotation has started more than four games - even as the Cornhuskers enter their 11th game of the regular season Saturday at Penn State. But Anderson, a Frankford High graduate, has settled into a regular role at weakside linebacker.
In his last two games, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Anderson, a redshirt junior, had two sacks among his six tackles in a win that broke Michigan's 19-game home winning streak, and recorded eight tackles in last week's loss to Michigan State.
"I think the defense has been playing great the last couple of games just because there hasn't been a bunch of movement," Anderson said Tuesday night. "At the beginning of the year, you didn't know, the lineup changed every week. But the linebackers have been set the last three weeks, so it improved the chemistry and everybody is focused more."
Entering the Penn State game, Anderson is fourth on the team in tackles with 42 in nine games, three of them starts. He missed the Illinois game with an ankle injury.
Anderson has walked a long road to get to where he is today, starting with the Frankford Chargers in his youth football days in his old neighborhood. He played mostly at fullback in high school but thrived at Riverside (Calif.) City College as a linebacker.
"No, I don't miss being a running back," he said. "I'd rather give the hit than receive it."
He chose Nebraska over Texas Tech, Mississippi State and Kentucky because "I liked the chemistry, the coaches, the whole atmosphere, the 90,000 fans every game," he said.
However, three days before his first collegiate start last season, he felt something pop in his right knee. He went on to play that game against Arkansas State in pain, and an MRI was ordered that revealed the torn ACL.
But he worked hard in his rehabilitation and came back last spring. He studied a lot of film during his idle days learning the entire defense and what his responsibilities were at his position.
Now he is playing with confidence and aiding the improved play of Nebraska's "Blackshirts" defense. The unit allowed an average of 463.8 total yards in its four nonconference games earlier this season, but only 313.3 yards per contest in Big Ten play.
"I've been playing more and getting the defenses down better and just executing my assignments better," Anderson said. "I think everything has been going great. I'm feeling more comfortable. The coaches have confidence in me right now and it feels great."