(Eds: Updates with quotes, details.)By ANTONIO GONZALEZAP Sports Writer
Until he sacked Oregon’s Marcus Mariota last week, teammates had teased Henry Anderson for his lack of flair following big plays.
”Goose,” as Stanford players nicknamed him after he went scoreless in the ”Madden NFL” video game his freshman year, got caught up in the moment for a change when he helped bring down Mariota. He popped up, crossed his arms and stared at the stands behind the end zone in celebration.
”He’d been as bland as a Saltine cracker post-play,” linebacker Shayne Skov said. ”We had been waiting for something from him and he delivered.”
Forgive the Stanford defensive end for finally letting loose.
After sitting out the previous six games with a knee injury, Anderson wants to make his presence known again. His return already has provided some relief for the fifth-ranked Cardinal (8-1, 6-1), who play at Southern California (7-3, 4-2) on Saturday night looking to take a major step toward hosting the Pac-12 title game for a second straight season.
Anderson injured his knee in the second game of the season at Army when his leg snapped back awkwardly in a pile of players. He was put through a rigorous rehabilitation program with a return targeted for the Oregon game, though for weeks it seemed he’d likely be out even longer.
The Cardinal’s depth took another major hit when fellow starting defensive end Ben Gardner suffered a season-ending injury to his left chest muscle in a win at Oregon State on Oct. 26.
”Those guys, playing against some up-tempo teams, didn’t really get a lot of breathers. It was tough sitting up in the stands and watching them come off the sideline gasping for air and not able to help them at all,” Anderson said. ”When Ben went down, I kind of knew I’d have to come in and help those guys out.”
Anderson’s addition was hard to miss. At 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, the redshirt junior is one of the most imposing specimens on Stanford’s stout defense.
He ended last season with 50 tackles, including 16 for a loss, six sacks and five pass breakups. Most of the production came over the final seven games as his technique improved rapidly each week.
”You look at him, and he’s a Sunday player,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. ”I think the injury probably stopped any thought of him possibly going pro this year, which he never talked about anyway. He’s a difference maker. When he’s healthy, to be 6-6 and 295 and that athletic and playing low, there are not a lot of guys on the planet built like that.”
Anderson still had to hone his skills at Stanford. He dominated offensive linemen at his Atlanta-area high school, where he once had his elbow popped back into place on the sideline before returning to play.
Besides putting on pounds of muscle, the biggest adjustment he had to make was getting lower than his opponent – which is not that easy at his height.
”In high school, I could kind of get away with that just because I was bigger than everybody else. But in college … those guys dominated me early on,” Anderson said. ”So I kind of realized I had to get my pads down if I wanted to play well.”
Growing up in the heart of Southeastern Conference country, most of Anderson’s friends were Georgia fans. His parents, Eric and Ellen, went to Wisconsin, and he said that’s probably why he doesn’t speak with a Southern accent.
When it came time to choose a college, Anderson wanted a strong combination of academics and athletics. He turned down offers from Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and others, he said, because former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh had turned things around and he didn’t think other academic-rich programs would be able to sustain success on the field.
Anderson, a political science major, said he hasn’t given much thought to forgoing his final year of eligibility for the NFL after this season. In all likelihood, though, he’ll be back next season.
For now, he’s just happy his knee is healthy again.
”I was a little nervous going out there full speed having to tackle guys and stuff like that,” Anderson said. ”But after the first drive or two, it felt pretty normal.”
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP