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Will ‘Dirty Bird’ star soar again?

Anderson headlines list of 31 NFL players with Utah connections

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From "Dirty Bird" superstar on a Super Bowl team to wounded duck on a 5-11 disaster, Jamal Anderson has experienced the ups-and-downs.

This season he's hoping for a return to "up."

The ex-Ute star — one of 31 former Utah high school and college players who open the season on NFL rosters — is playing again for the Atlanta Falcons, attempting to bounce back from a serious right knee injury suffered in Game 2 last season. He's expected to start in Sunday's season-opener against the 49ers.

Some doubt if the 27-year-old running back will ever exhibit the same skill and speed that helped him rack up an NFL record 410 carries and a franchise record 1,846 yards in 1998.

Anyone sane would acknowledge there's already a couple strikes against him.

Strike one is the historical fact that NFL running backs tend to have short careers. For every Walter Payton who plays double-digit seasons, there's several dozen guys like Ickey Woods — guys whose bodies or minds or both fail to hold up against the constant pounding dished out by defenders who seem to get stronger and faster every season.

Strike two is that Anderson's injury was leg-related. A running back's most important tools are his legs. And you don't make shifty moves around defenders on a balky knee.

Anderson's preseason numbers didn't do much to erase the doubts. In Atlanta's final exhibition outing, against Jacksonville, he rushed for 18 yards on 7 carries. His final preseason totals: 35 yards on 18 carries.

Falcon fans apparently aren't unanimously hopeful. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently ran an online survey asking readers whether Anderson would prove to be just another "one-year wonder." Thirty-six percent of respondents said "yes."

An optimistic Anderson said the paltry preseason stats mean nothing.

"The last time I had good numbers in the preseason was 1997," he told the Jacksonville Times-Union. "It's not a big concern."

Anderson only practiced about every other day during camp, to give his knee an opportunity to come along slowly but surely. He says it's doing just that.

"The last two weeks have felt better and better every day," he told the Times-Union. "My blitz pickup and vision is getting better. The cutting, shedding tacklers and then making that explosion . . . it's all getting there. I have to take it easy. Everything will come."

What Anderson means by "everything" is a return to postseason glory for the Falcons and a return to Pro Bowl form for him. He concedes that last season was incredibly frustrating.

"Not being able to help, watching us go backward, that was the worst," he told the Associated Press.

If Anderson does bounce back, he will be the marquee player among former Utahns in the pros, especially since former 49er and BYU quarterback Steve Young finally decided to call it quits.

Anderson is one of nine Utes in the NFL this season, while BYU still has 13 alumni on big-league rosters, Utah State and Weber State have three each. American Fork, Viewmont and North Summit High Schools check in with one NFL player apiece.

E-MAIL: rich@desnews.com