Tulane linebacker Nick Anderson eager to show the NFL what he’s made of

While draft prospects are judged on measurables, Tulane linebacker Nick Anderson’s stature pales in comparison to the height of his character. Football is a game of inches, so it’s fair to be critical of that metric in its players. Teams define prototypes for good reason. But to discount what Anderson brings on and off the field is a disservice to his greatness. Especially his value to an NFL locker room.

“Make sure to make fun of Nick for being short,” Tulane strength and conditioning coach Kurt Hester, who is training Anderson and a group of players for their pro day, told me while walking in to watch their three-hour session. As Nick and I sat inside Yulman Stadium afterward, we joked about scouting reports that found six ways to Sunday to define his weaknesses as one factor: too short for an NFL linebacker.

Not all teams are open to undersized linebackers, and height isn’t a controllable trait. Those players must demand enough attention elsewhere to be viewed as the exception. For New Orleans Saints fans, think no further than Steve Gleason. Nick Anderson is one I can attest to as the Green Wave’s sideline reporter for the last two seasons.

Unfortunately for Anderson, he didn’t get the chance to showcase his skills at the college showcases, and only has Tulane’s pro day to impress scouts on the field. He specifically wants to show off his speed and foot quickness with his 40-time. The latter trait stood out immediately in their box jump drills outside.

Pro day training is akin to learning how to pass the SAT. The vertical jump isn’t something a player will ever use in a game setting. It comes down to the right foot placement, popping your hip, using your longest finger to gain that extra inch. Walking around the weight room, I wasn’t surprised to see Anderson helping a teammate with footwork off to the side. Nor by his relaxed attitude on what he can control in the draft process. Nick Anderson defines mental toughness in a player.

“Growing up in Mississippi, I always had the dream of playing in the SEC,” Nick told me. But he received no Division 1 FBS opportunities out of high school. He took a gamble on himself by attending Jones Junior College. He was offered by South Alabama before he stepped on the field. While that motivated him to help lead his team to the state championship, he still dreamed of the SEC. In the end, it came down to South Alabama, Ole Miss, and Tulane.

Anderson didn’t know Tulane head coach Willie Fritz had coached at the junior college level until he joined the team. But he was the first coach to take the time to drive up to Ellisville, Miss. to see him play. Tulane’s defensive coordinator had reached out to say they loved his film, and wanted to offer him, but they needed to make sure he had Tulane-caliber grades. Anderson laughed and knew they’d be calling back in the week. He had standout grades. When Fritz asked him about committing in their meeting, Anderson needed time. The offer from Ole Miss, the childhood dream, was at the forefront of his mind.

“I walked into my defensive coordinator’s office after, and he asked me how the talk went,” Nick said. “I told him I didn’t commit but was very interested. He looked at me and said, ‘Are you crazy?’”

“He knew I wanted to go to Ole Miss bad, it being in Mississippi and a Power Five school. He said, ‘Nick, you go to Ole Miss, you’re just another guy. It’s not a knock to your talent, it’s the SEC. They’re more of what they see, as far as measurables, height. You got the offer, but when it comes down to it, they’re going to pick somebody bigger than you. They may not be better than you, but that’s the reality of the SEC. Or you go to Tulane, be a star on the field, get a great education, and have a better route to get drafted. What do you want to do?’”

His story resonated with a formative childhood experience I shared with him. I had a growth stunt and lost my role on my competitive soccer team when I was 12. My coach asked me to join his new Division 3 team. He needed a leader and wanted it to be me. It hurt to hear I wasn’t good enough. I initially said no but changed my mind with a chip on my shoulder. Three years later, I was called back up to fill in for an injured player and made the game-saving tackle. My coach asked me to join my former team. Though an ankle injury took me out of the sport, it wasn’t the final call that stuck with me. It was my coach’s confidence in me as a leader when I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Anderson is grateful for that same tough love from his coach. He placed his trust in Tulane’s program, Coach Fritz, and the culture he wanted to instill. Anderson knew he’d make an impact on and off the field at Tulane. That was the goal he laid out for himself. Culture is a term that gets thrown around with no real footing. There’s no better example of what it means than the last two seasons of Tulane football.

Willie Fritz has coached at every level but Power Five in college football. He’s won everywhere he’s been. He saw Tulane moving in the right direction. A team with little success in recent years. He was determined to change that and shared this vision with Anderson. They talked about Darnell Mooney, Lawrence Graham, players in Fritz’s first recruiting class for the Green Wave. When Anderson came for his official visit, he saw something in the Tulane team that is rare in college football.

“I saw how the guys interacted with each other,” Nick explained. “It was genuine friendship. It was different than a lot of places I went to where the team was in cliques. Outside of mandatory stuff, they didn’t really talk to each other. I could tell – especially in the linebacker room – they had genuine love for Coach Mutz and his family, who had the same for them. It was something I wanted to be a part of, rather than go to a school because they have hype. To go somewhere with intimate relationships, and coaches who want players to produce on and off the field. That’s what made me make the decision to come here. Family.”

I arrived on the sideline right before the 2021 season. After three straight seasons of Bowl games, Tulane spiraled following Hurricane Ida and our 27-day evacuation to Birmingham, Al. with no weight room, nutritional options, nor locker room. A player sat in a ballroom one day drying his uniform with a blow dryer. As we were talking, I realized the first domino to fall was the 61-21 loss to none other than Ole Miss. I asked Nick if that game was personal for him.

“It was,” Anderson admitted. “Looking back, I shouldn’t have made it as personal as I did. I was going through a lot at the time,” Two days into the evacuation, his sister had been in a major car accident that required facial reconstruction surgery. Meanwhile, Tulane was playing the Rebels team he always dreamed of joining.

“I thought, man, I almost went here,” Nick continued. “I know 60% of the team on the other sideline. I wanted to prove I could have played on that stage. I went out and played hard. I ended up breaking my fibula. My ankle had been hurting the whole week. The morning of the game I could barely walk on it. But I’m not missing Ole Miss.”

“The first series, I made a couple tackles. Then the second quarter hit. I forced a fumble. I jumped up in the air after, came down, and felt it. I didn’t know that I broke it, but I knew something was wrong. I played through it. My leg started to spasm going in at halftime, and I thought I was cramping because that’s what it felt like. I tried to loosen the muscle up. I’m taking Pedialyte, eating salt, thinking it’s a cramp. In reality, the muscle had spasmed to keep that bone in place.”

He played until they pulled starters in the fourth quarter. By the end of the game, he was hopping on one leg. Back in Birmingham, he couldn’t sleep with excruciating pain. He’d learn the next day he needed surgery and would miss a month of football. The promising year he envisioned saw him rolling around on a scooter back at Yulman Stadium. I’ll never forget the pit in my stomach walking in for practice and seeing him to my right with a lower leg cast. After uttering an expletive, I asked him what happened. The heart and soul of this team was sidelined. Something I learned in one month of training camp and three games living in a hotel under renovation with a team I’d just met.

“It hit me hard at the time,” Anderson said. “But I never questioned God. I asked Him, what do you want me to learn out of this? What He taught me through that situation was one, enjoy every moment of being on the field. One of the main things I took with me is that this game can be taken from you like that. Just one play, it can be stripped away. We’ve seen that in so many instances, like Damar Hamlin.”

“Every time that I’m able to practice, I’m able to run around, it’s another blessing because it’s not promised for everybody. He showed me how true He was in my life, and how, no matter how bad it’s looking, He’ll always make a way. I went from surgery, to scooting around for 10 days, to learning how to walk, then trying to figure out how to run. Four weeks later, I’m on the field at SMU making 11 tackles. Even in us losing, I had a positive mindset because I couldn’t walk two weeks ago. It made me enjoy being on the field, being there for my teammates, and have a positive outlook on opportunities God gives you because it could be worse for so many other people.”

We discussed former Tulane player Devon Walker, who was paralyzed in a game my freshman year attending the university. The No. 18 flag the players wave running out of the tunnel in honor of Walker is a continued reminder of Anderson’s sentiment. While he refused to take any credit for the defensive turnaround that coincided with his return, I’ll do it for him. He was the leading tackler in three of six games. The defense allowed fewer average yards in every metric and made more third down stops – 7 by Anderson. Tulane’s final three losses were by 7 points or less. Anderson’s true impact isn’t tangible on a stat sheet. It’s the traits that led to the greatest single-season turnaround in college football history.

Those who followed the Green Wave’s 2022 season have heard of Anderson’s PowerPoint presentation with the American Athletic Conference trophy. The 2021 college football season saw massive changes with conference realignments, the transfer portal, and NIL. To be candid, who would stick around at Tulane if presented with a greater opportunity? The vision of a program-defining culture Coach Fritz shared with Anderson years back came to fruition in ways no one saw coming. Except for Nick Anderson.

Sitting in a New Orleans bowling alley for an official visit weekend following last year’s season finale loss, Anderson watched Oklahoma State play Baylor on TV with former Tulane DC Chris Hampton. Before their eyes, former Tulane safety and Baylor graduate assistant P.J. Hall won the Big 12 conference championship. The two looked at each other. Why can’t this be us? Something told them Tulane could do it.

“I had been receiving offers from a lot of schools,” Anderson admitted. “But I told Hamp – he and I sat down and had an intimate moment. Nobody really knows this, but I told him, ‘I’m coming back, I’m not leaving.’ He looked at me and said the same. He had his own opportunities. We decided the standard is a conference championship. We’re turning all this down to come back to Tulane. This is the last dance.”

Anderson got together with fellow captains Dorian Williams, Michael Pratt, and Sincere Haynesworth after Christmas break. They asked, what problems did we have last year that were in our control? Winning the championship goes past the football aspect. They made a list of things the team could improve, and things that played a role in their losing. They put together that PowerPoint, and set the tone that Tulane is a player-led team. One with tough love and accountability, but one of brotherhood. Exactly what Anderson saw back on his official visit.

To anyone outside that room, the idea of Tulane going from two wins to a championship game the program had never reached was lunacy. While I admittedly thought they were crazy when they declared this daily through spring camp, their unwavering confidence told my gut to believe them. That’s not to say things started smoothly. Anderson recalled a few scuffles in camp. There was an air of anxiety I could feel.

“There was some doubt in the room,” Anderson was candid. “I felt the way the four captains led, and the seniors led daily showed guys we can do this. We’ve put in the work. When you bust your tail, it means more to you when fall comes around and you’re playing these games. I told them, we worked so hard this whole year just to get 12 guaranteed opportunities. You want to look yourself in the mirror after each game and say I gave it my all.”

“I felt that guys didn’t push themselves hard in the offseason in years’ past, so they couldn’t hold themselves accountable when the season came. This year, every game we said we won this back in March. When we were out there grinding, working hard, sweating, fighting to get through workouts. That’s when we won these games. That’s when we made our mental toughness. Now let’s go out there and win.”

Tulane made their first deafening statement when they upset Kansas State on the road. The defense made four fourth down stops – Anderson involved in two. It was the best single-game tackling performance I’ve witnessed. Anderson credits their determination to stop star running back Deuce Vaughn.

“He had a swag about him, he let you know that he was that guy on the field,” Nick told me. “Watching film on him in the summer, we saw the way he would get a first down and celebrate, and almost mock other defenses. No knock to him, but we thought, are we really going to let this dude come out here and do us like that? That whole game we set the tone. This guy’s not going to beat us.”

“We took it personally,” he continued. “We went out there and played hard. That was the first game we got to really showcase who we were, especially as a defense. I heard so many people doubt us and say we’re not physical, we can’t do this, we can’t do that. So, we said we’re going to go out there and play big boy football. And that’s what we did.”

Tulane was 3-0 for the first time since their 1998 undefeated season. Willie Fritz had his first Power Five win. Then Southern Miss came to town; an injured quarterback facing his first offense coordinator in Will Hall, a defensive backslide, a blocked punt and field goal, missed field goal, failed onside kick, and a three-point loss. Anderson saw the season flash before his eyes.

“This is not our reality. I’ll never forget walking on the field after the game and I had tears in my eyes,” Nick told me. “We can’t go out like this. You get that fire when you know what it felt like to lose the year before. I said no. I got in the locker room and some guys were getting into it. We’re not doing this. Coach Fritz was about to speak, but I kind of cut him off.”

“I went off on them a bit in the meeting, but it was out of love,” he continued. “We have worked our tails off since January, and we are not throwing everything away because we lost a non-conference game. I’m sorry to the alum, but we never came out and started our season saying we’re going to win the Battle of the Bell. We’re winning a conference championship. That is still obtainable. The way we got here, to where we’re now sitting at 3-1, is playing with each other, trusting each other, and putting our best foot forward.”

Nick knew they couldn’t let this turn into multiple losses. So did Coach Fritz; his 1-0 mantra wasn’t born in that loss. But it turned into a true mentality that became a critical standard for these players. They knew the real season started next week in Houston. They shut out outside noise, players bought in, and knew they could only depend on each other. They locked in on 1-0 and beat Houston in overtime with their third-string quarterback.

Every game in Tulane’s 2022 season was special, but the final stretch of games defines magic in college football. Tulane went on a five-game conference winning streak until they lost to UCF. Anderson felt they overprepared for a complicated offense that rolled into Yulman and just let their quarterback fly at track speed. Destiny was no longer in their hands, and they had no margin for error in their final two games. Anderson credits the Southern Miss loss with their mental toughness that finished the season out. I always thought the same. Four days later, they pummeled SMU and were one win from the championship on the road. Then Navy beat UCF – something Anderson knew was going to happen.

“College football has a way of coming full circle,” Nick said. “We had been in a similar situation that UCF was going into. We beat a great ranked team in K State and overlooked a worthy opponent. I’m sitting there thinking, UCF beat us, but they put their all into that game. Navy doesn’t look talented on a stat sheet. When we were beating the brakes off them in 2020, they came out the second half and played hard. They’re one of those teams. I knew they were going to handle business. If UCF didn’t come with it on their mind, they were going to lose.”

“That gave us an extra boost going into Cincinnati,” he continued. “This is for all the marbles. We don’t care about their streak. We don’t care they’re the defending champions. They’re in the way of us hosting the conference championship. They’re in the way of everything we’ve been playing for. We go up there and leave it all on the field. It was do or die. That was the mentality of the team. One more game. And we play UCF again. The rest is history.”

A team no one saw coming broke a 32-home game winning streak. They hosted their first-ever conference championship, took the lead, and never looked back. It led to No. 16 Tulane’s first major bowl game since 1940. The first time the school would face the active Heisman Trophy winner, Caleb Williams, and his No. 10 USC team in the Cotton Bowl.

“It was surreal,” Nick described the scene on the field after the championship. “To see the tears, how much happiness we brought everybody with that win. To see Yulman Stadium full. Fireworks going up, people rushing the field. It cemented the ideology of you can do anything you set your mind to do. If you buy in, believe in yourself, believe in God, and in the people around you, you will get it done.”

I recall listening in on a defensive meeting during the team’s regular season UCF loss. Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams kept their teammates’ heads cool. Momentum never switched, but Tulane never quit. I felt that stillness again in AT&T Stadium with four minutes remaining and USC up 45-30. I hosted the radio broadcast postgame show, and was discussing with our Play-by-Play announcer, Corey Gloor, whether I should start making my way up. Something in me wouldn’t allow me to leave the sideline. If I head up, I’m quitting on this team. They’ve never quit on themselves.

When the USC player fumbled the kickoff at the 1-yd line moments later, I realized this was a team of destiny. Anderson, in that same moment, knew they were getting a safety. Tulane scored 16 points in four minutes and became the Cotton Bowl champions. None of that happens without Nick Anderson and that conversation back in a bowling alley. To get candid, being the sideline reporter for Tulane this season was personally fulfilling in a way I never expected. I had several 2-10 seasons in my life leading up to this past year. I had people ask me why I stuck around after my first season. I knew it was exactly where I was supposed to be. I found my lost identity in this team. I saw my own chip on my shoulder that moved me beyond football games. Nick Anderson’s goal coming to Tulane was to make an impact on and off the field. His leadership, mental toughness, and character as a friend accomplished that in me.

We ended our conversation talking about what he can control in the draft process, and he knows it starts with his attitude. He can’t grow taller. It would be criminal to count Anderson out over an uncontrollable metric that never seemed to make a difference in a single snap I’ve watched him play. His 113 total tackles last season rank fifth overall in a conference that includes Cincinnati’s Ivan Pace Jr. He led Tulane in tackles in six games, and was second in three others alongside his counterpart, Dorian Williams. I have yet to see a better linebacker tandem in two seasons of college football than I have in Williams and Anderson. Williams equally deserves his flowers. I could go on about his own mental toughness.

It’s a trait alongside leadership the New Orleans Saints value in rookies. Every defensive player selected in last year’s draft was a captain on their college team. After watching players at the Combine last season – specifically defenders – Dennis Allen relaxed some of the team’s prototypes in his first year as head coach. It wouldn’t be the first short middle linebacker to make his mark in New Orleans. That fighting spirit in 5-foot-9 Sam Mills that led to his Saints Hall of Fame induction is present in Anderson in spades.

The Saints’ 2022 season fell short of expectations. Players like Alvin Kamara out of Tennessee voiced unfamiliarity with losing several games in a row. When the light at the end of the tunnel dims, leadership matters. Anderson dreamed of what winning on a big stage felt like in the SEC. Instead, he went down to New Orleans and brought that magic to a school that hasn’t seen success like this in 83 years. Every Tulane player that joins an NFL team has valuable experience knowing what it’s like to lose. Being the perennial underdog and fighting through it.

Nick Anderson is a leader in ways that transcend the game of football. He’s the exception. His value in a locker room is nothing short of an asset to the team that rightly gives him a chance to prove everyone wrong one last time.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire