NEW ORLEANS — Justin Anderson’s role on the Louisiana-Lafayette football team changed just an hour before last year’s New Orleans Bowl. And since then, it has only expanded.
The junior linebacker has become the top stopper for the Ragin’ Cajuns defense, leading ULL in tackles by a huge margin heading into Saturday’s 11 a.m. return to the New Orleans Bowl against East Carolina.
Six times this year, the Foley, Ala., native reached double figures in tackles, and he ranked sixth in the Sun Belt Conference with 101 tackles. His 69 solo stops dwarf the team’s next-highest total — defensive backs Jermarlous Moten and Melvin White have 44 apiece — and his overall total is more than 30 ahead of his nearest teammate.
Those figures may not be nearly that high, and the Cajuns’ defense may not be as good, had it not been for a scary moment just before ULL’s first Division I bowl game last year.
“My preparations are always the same,” Anderson said of last year’s 32-30 win over San Diego State, “but going in, it didn’t look like I was going to get much playing time.”
That changed when senior Devon Lewis-Buchanan suffered a strange injury in pregame warmups. During a loosening-up session, Lewis-Buchanan — the team’s third-leading tackler — crumpled to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf, clutching his knee.
It didn’t take long to determine he had dislocated his kneecap and that he wasn’t going to be on the field for his final college game. At the time, it looked like a crushing blow for what was a thin linebacker unit.
“I was standing on about the 40-yard line and I saw that someone went down,” Anderson said. “I didn’t know who it was until some of the coaches came charging up to me, saying I had to be ready.”
Anderson eventually posted five tackles in the Cajuns’ win, making an early impact when he sacked Ryan Lindley for a 9-yard loss on San Diego State’s first drive.
“At first, it was just a matter of hoping (Lewis-Buchanan) was OK and hoping he could play,” Anderson said. “But when I knew I had to play, I knew I was ready to go and prove myself. (Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Greg Stewart and graduate assistant/linebackers coach Tom Rybacki) took me inside, went over the playbook and made sure I had everything down. I didn’t have time to worry about impressing people. ... I had to go in and trust myself and know what I could do.”
He hasn’t been out of the starting lineup since and, in his 12 starts this season, he earned a reputation as a ball-hawking defender from his inside linebacker slot. He scored a touchdown on an interception return in ULL’s win over Tulane, and he forced two other turnovers during the year while posting eight stops for losses and two sacks.
“There are some guys that just have a knack for finding and being around the ball,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “Some guys in that position are just great athletes, but Justin plays smart and plays instinctive and just finds ways to get to the ball carrier.”
It’s not like Anderson hadn’t seen action before last year’s bowl. He had played in 16 games in his first two seasons — at defensive end as a freshman and at linebacker last year, when he also started at Florida Atlantic a month before the bowl. His numbers and playing time could have been higher had he not suffered a broken leg in 2010 spring drills.
It was during that first season and his preceding redshirt year that he picked up the nickname of “Baseball” from then-defensive line coach Gerald Broussard. That wasn’t exactly a compliment, even though Anderson was an Alabama all-state baseball standout at Foley High and played in select summer leagues.
“Baseball practices are a lot more laid-back and, when he first got here, he sort of had that baseball mentality,” said Broussard, who now serves as color analyst on ULL’s radio network. “I got on him good. ... I kept yelling at him that this wasn’t baseball, this was football and he had to stop practicing like a baseball player.”
Whether that spurred Anderson or not — “I never really asked him why he called me that,” Anderson said — he had confidence in his ability even before his break-out 2012.
“My goal that I told someone in an interview on media day was that I wanted to be the leading tackler on defense,” he said. “Somewhere around the sixth or seventh game, someone came up to me and asked if I could get to 100 tackles.
“I hadn’t even thought about it until then, but I knew I wanted to be one of the leaders on defense.”