Monson: Linebacker Zayne Anderson is set to star in BYU’s defense, if his body cooperates

Disappointment and frustration are the two biggest challenges BYU’s senior linebacker Zayne Anderson has faced. It’s never been a lack of talent, which in some ways has made the challenges worse. When you know you can do something, and do it well, and the opportunity is there, the capability is there, the coaches and pro scouts think it’s there, the need is there, and then a broken body part interferes … what are you supposed to do?

Heal. That’s what.

And wait. And train. And go again.

Anderson, then, embarks upon his final college season this week, as BYU opens camp on Wednesday, as a vital part of the Cougars’ defense, having endured injuries, a position switch, and a previous senior season, postponed and rerouted and redshirted after playing in four games in 2018, preserving one last shot at becoming, at being, who and what he thinks he really is.

There was a time last year, after undergoing season-ending surgery on his right shoulder following BYU’s game against Utah State, after standing on the sideline as his team ebbed and flowed on the field in his absence, when he was starting to forget.

He felt isolated and helpless, useless.

“That experience was eye-opening and humbling,” he says. “It was tough, not being able to do anything. When you’re injured like that, you kind of get lost. You step away from the team, you don’t even feel like you’re on the team. You start asking yourself, ‘Who am I? What am I?’ I was in a funk. It sounds funny, but it’s real.”

In the subsequent months of rehab and reconditioning, as Anderson grew stronger and self-doubt faded, he remembered: “I’m a football player who wants to help his team win.”

Now, he can again.

Anderson is one of two veteran linebackers — the other is junior Isaiah Kaufusi — returning to anchor a position group that typically is a strength for BYU. The rest of the guys are relative newcomers — mostly freshmen and returned missionaries trying to fill in for six seniors who left the program after 2018.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Linebacker Zayne Anderson sits for an interview during BYU football media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

During spring practices, when Anderson was not yet ready to play, he was asked by coaches to tutor not just his fellow linebackers, but the entire defense. He called defensive plays during scrimmages, and that mental involvement helped him grasp all the moving parts to the Cougars’ defense and reconnected him to his mates, positioning him for a leadership role on this season’s iteration.

“I felt like I mastered the defense,” he says. “It’s a defense that will be good. I’m confident in the scheme, in the guys in front, the guys behind, and the guys beside me.”

When Anderson first arrived at BYU in 2015, out of Stansbury Park High School, he was a safety, the position for which he was recruited to play. Earlier in his prep career, he verbally committed to Utah State, but when the Cougars offered during his senior year, he changed his mind. That did not please then-Aggies coach Matt Wells, who straight up interrogated Anderson about the switch.

“He asked me, ‘Why do you want to go to BYU?’ I told him I felt like it was the place for me. He was bitter. He was … well, kind of an ass.”

That was before Wells dumped USU for Texas Tech.

After arriving in Provo, Anderson earned spot duty and played special teams before Bronco Mendenhall and much of his staff left BYU for Virginia. Thereafter, as a sophomore, he educated himself further by watching Kai Nacua play in front of him. His breakout year came in 2017, when he started and thrived in the back of the Cougars D, utilizing his speed to make plays.

It was his ability to cover ground that prompted his switch to the “flash” linebacker position prior to the 2018 season, replacing Fred Warner, who had been the central figure in BYU’s defense before being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers.

At first, Anderson was resistant to the move, knowing he would have to bulk up from his safety weight, playing at 200 pounds, to somewhere between 215 and 220. He acquiesced because he saw the need to fill a gaping hole and because the notion of being a ball hawk appealed to him.

“It’s one of the most dynamic positions on the defense,” he says. “The coaches told me they thought I could really develop there. The more I played it, the more I liked it, always being around the ball.”

Anderson used his 4.4-ish 40 speed to effectively cover the field, but before he could fully dial in, in BYU’s first game last season against Arizona, he went for a sack, tumbling to the ground with his right arm extended. That’s when a 300-pound offensive lineman fell on his limb, tearing Anderson’s labrum.

He played on — “That’s what you do,” he says, “you handle the pain and man up” — for those four games, the most allowable under NCAA rules for a redshirt year to be awarded. It was obvious, though, that Anderson was struggling to wrap up. An MRI confirmed his injury, and he underwent the surgery in October.

When Anderson was still in high school, he tore his left labrum, so now he has a matching set of repaired shoulders. Neither of which, he says, bothers him now.

He makes no secret of the fact that he wants to play in the NFL, so he has a dual track to follow this season — the first is to help the Cougars win as many games as possible and the second is to get drafted.

On account of his unusual speed, Anderson has gotten positive feedback from NFL insiders about his chances. To realize them, he must keep his weight where it is, at 220, maybe put on another five pounds, and stay healthy. “For me, those are a couple of big things,” he says.

Right now, Anderson’s focus is on preparing for BYU’s season opener against Utah. He has been training hard, probably too hard, having tweaked a hip flexor a few days before the start of camp. He says it’s nothing serious, but … he’s easing off a bit, to make sure.

“I’ve never beaten Utah,” he says, “so I want to be ready for that game. They’ve gotten a lot of hype. Watching what happened against them last season, and not being able to do anything about it, was disappointing, frustrating …”

The two challenges.

“… But this time, hopefully, we can beat them, then they can go on to win the Pac-12, whatever, and we can have a great season.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.