Among the most interesting positions to study during Spring Football, the Trojans inside linebackers corp could provide the greatest strength and versatility across the board.
It all starts with the veteran leadership of captain Hayes Pullard, who returns as the team's leading tackler from last season and emotional leader in the locker room. Peter Sirmon, 36, inherits an intriguing group that mixes plenty of up-and-coming talent with returning veteran leadership that want to play downhill football.
After losing Lamar Dawson to injury mid-way through the season, in the midst of an epic slew of injuries that nearly crippled USC's scholarship numbers, secondary guys rallied the troops by taking major strides on defense.
That experience, coupled with the addition of Olajuwon Tucker, who has the ability to make plays from all over the field once he arrives this Fall. Check out the linebacking board that expects to make contributions not only on defense, but also as special team magnets throughout the season.
MLB: Lamar Dawson (Returning Starter: Sr.), Joey Foy (R. Fr.), Michael Hutchings (So.), Quinton Powell (So.), Hayes Pullard (Returning Starter: Sr.), Anthony Sarao (Returning Starter: Jr.), Nick Schlossberg (So.), Olajuwon Tucker (In. Fr.)
ICYMI...See how they work in tandem with USC's OLB group this Spring:
OLB: Charles Burkes (Jr.), Malik Dorton (In. Fr.), Don Hill (Fr.), Uchenna Nwosu (In. Fr.), Quinton Powell (So.), Jabari Ruffin (So.), Scott Starr (So.), J.R. Tavai (Returning Starter: Sr.)
This group may never stack up with Linebacker U that thrived under Pete Carroll, but they certainly have the pieces to be one of the most productive units since that time. USC does return three players that have logged significant starting time over the course of their careers, and is committed to putting pressure on the quarterback by any means necessary. It's the combination of size, speed and experience that places this group right with Stanford as one of the best in the conference.
Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson return as three year starters that can not only make an immediate impact in the starting lineup, they can also help implement new systems on defense for Justin Wilcox. Pullard's talent is noteworthy, and could make him a First-Team All-Pac-12 Player, even possibly All-American worthy, who rivals Stanford's A.J. Tarpley as the best linebacker in the conference heading into the Spring.
Just to put this experience into perspective, Pullard led the team in tackles in two of his three seasons that features 39 starts. Dawson meanwhile, (35 tac, 3.5 for loss, 1.5 sack) brings 20 starts of experience to the position and will be a tremendous piece in the Fall, since he is expected to not participate much this Spring while recovering from injury.
SECOND YEAR STUDS
The one player to watch this Spring will be Michael Hutchings, a supremely talented four-star prospect who will finally get his first real chance at playing time. Working alongside fellow freshman Quinton Powell on the scout-team defense, Hutchings showcased great vision against the run, and good leadership skills as the go-to play caller.
Powell is an explosive player that's best known around the locker room for his freakish athletic ability. It should be important to note that Powell will be experimenting outside and weak-side backer this Spring, as he continues to find a niche in Justin Wilcox defense. Both players will get enhanced reps, especially during competition-heavy Spring Football, and could lay the pavement for a comfortable transfer of the torch once Pullard and Dawson graduate.
SARAO SET TO START
After being thrusted into the fold mid-way through last season, Anthony Sarao (44 tac, 2.5 for loss) emerged onto the scene and played rather well down the stretch. Sarao will take most of the first-team reps this Spring, and could be a major player to watch on defense because of his budding confidence and vision against the run.
Assuming he continues to dive into the playbook with his workman-like mindset, Sarao will be an important weapon for Sirmon to play with on all three downs and will definitely be the full-time guy throughout Spring practice, giving Coach Sarkisian plenty of optimism about the future of this position.
WHAT DOES THE SARK SAY...
"When I talk about our defensive front 7 being one of the strengths of the team, a lot of that is because of our linebackers," said Sarkisian, in the USC Spring Football Press Release. "The inside backers are solid, talented players who have lots of versatility. They have a great leader and mentor in Hayes."