USC linebacker Dion Bailey isn't afraid to admit it. Playing at 202 pounds last season, he says he often got overpowered when he tried to break through the offensive line and get to the quarterback.
But now, the redshirt sophomore has bulked up to a more sturdy 215 pounds -- and he plans to gain another five before the start of fall camp in August.
The added weight should allow him to play the role of a real linebacker, not the sort of safety-moonlighting-at-strongside thing he was doing last year. And that's important to Bailey, who's always been keenly aware of the public perception of him and his game.
We caught up with him after a Trojans' throwing session last week, talking over that, his expectations for the USC defensive unit this season and several other topics.
Q: You're on two (now four) preseason watch lists already and could be on more. What does that sort of recognition mean to you at this stage in your college career?
A: I don't really pay any mind to it. Preseason stuff doesn't really matter -- all that matters is where you are at the end of the season. It's nice to know I'm on people's radar or whatever, but I don't really pay too much mind to it.
Q: What have you changed since last year? In what ways are you a different player than you were as a freshman?
A: I'm bigger and I'm much stronger from last year. My numbers in the weight room have increased dramatically from previous years, so I think I'll be able to be more of a physical presence in the run attack.
Q: Was that a conscious effort you made, knowing what your weaknesses were last year?
A: Yeah, I'm tired of being overpowered by linemen and stuff like that. I want to be able to hold my ground more steadily throughout the year, on a consistent basis, so I wanted to improve on my strength.
Q: What, specifically, is that strength going to provide to you, do you think?
A: I'm still going to try to react to the ball fast and run through the holes and try to beat the linemen to certain positions and certain places. But if I have to take on linemen, I'll have more of a strong foundation.
Q: Did you notice that a lot last year, not being able to get through a one-on-one situation with a blocker?
A: Yeah. I'd get caught in awkward positions and then linemen would easily overpower me. I wasn't much worried about it because I was 202, though.
Q: There's still no real way to tell if this added strength is going to be enough though, right? I mean, you believe it's going to make a big difference, but you're really just guessing until at least midway through fall camp.
A: No, but I know my strength, and I know I was able to take on lineman in certain aspects of the game. I'm also much stronger and a little bigger, so I don't really know, but I'll find out once we put our pads on in camp.
Q: You've made all these improvements, all these things you expect to be better at in 2012. Is there anything you expect to find difficult to match that you did in 2011, or is it all good, no bad?
A: I see everything pointing towards me getting better next year. I'm just trying to capitalize on everything I did last year and I've got a lot to improve on. It's all about baby steps.
Q: What was the problem with your defense in the first half of last year? I mean, you guys gave up 43 points to Arizona State and 41 to Arizona in back-to-back games. It wasn't all good, all the time, obviously.
A: We just didn't know the defense like we should've known it last year, so there were holes in our passing game. That allowed people to move the ball on us and rack up the points a couple times. ... We didn't lack talent. We just lacked knowledge of our assignments. People weren't where they were supposed to be at particular times, and quarterbacks like Andrew Luck and Nick Foles were able to find holes in our defense.
Q: That said, last year was still a lot better than 2010, when the defense really struggled to put up any dominating performances at all. The common explanation for that was that Lane Kiffin and Co. simplified the defense last season to make it easier for the team to comprehend. Is it going to be unsimplified now?
A: That's what I would think. Everybody on our defense has been in the system for two years now, and we should just let the playbook loose. That's what I'm expecting, getting my brainpower ready.
Q: So what would that entail, exactly? What would that mean?
A: When we came in my freshman year, me, Demetrius (Wright), Hayes (Pullard), we were learning like 10 plays a day. Then this fall camp, my sophomore year, we were only learning like one or two plays every day. And we just ran those same plays until we got it down pat and everybody knew what they were doing. This year, I'm assuming that Coach Kiff is gonna be the mastermind that he is and let the playbook loose.
Q: What exactly happened after those Arizona games, though? What clicked so suddenly?
A: We just decided we weren't going to be the weakness of our team. We realized that our offense has a lot of firepower and we just need to hold teams under 14 or 21 points so we can give ourselves a chance to win every game.
Q: The Kiffins built this defense with an eye for speed over size across the board. You're an example of that, in that they moved you over from safety before last season. Do you think that could hurt you guys when it comes time to play, say, a bigger SEC-style team in a bowl game?
A: I don't believe so. When we played Stanford, we held them in regulation to only like 190 yards rushing, and they ran for like 1,000 yards in Washington the week before. It all depends on how we show up that day. We've got a lot of pride, and we're not about to let teams just run all over us, no matter how big or little they are.
Q: But you are a little bigger yourself, and a lot of the defensive players on this team have made similar strength gains since last year. Can that help?
A: Definitely. So we can size up better with teams. So, yeah, say we go to a bowl game and play an SEC team or whatever, we don't want to be at a disadvantage in the size area.