Hayes Pullard, the Trojans’ redshirt freshman weakside linebacker, is a physical player -- so physical, in fact, he inspires his coaches to use, uh, inappropriate words to best describe him.
“The word I have in my mind for him, I know you can’t use,” says his position coach, Joe Barry. “But he just brings an overall toughness and an attitude and a personality to our defense.
“He doesn’t say a lot. He just kind of walks around with a scowl on his face all day long.”
Yes, he does. But Monte Kiffin doesn’t ask the weakside linebacker in his famed Tampa 2 defense to be a nice guy – he asks him to be the go-to tackler, the guy who all run plays are supposed to funnel to and end with.
In other words, Pullard must be ready to fulfill the roles of both the third safety and the fifth defensive linemen on any given snap, switching between run-stopper and pass-plugger on a regular basis.
And he’s been doing them well so far this year, working in tandem with fellow redshirt freshman Dion Bailey in what has been USC’s most outperforming-expectations unit thus far. There haven’t been many breakdowns from the middle trio in the Trojans’ secondary, and this team is also finding out that it can indeed count on Pullard as a sort of second-to-last ditch effort in the run game.
Not the last, because that’s T.J. McDonald and that means the running back broke through the front seven for significant yards. Pullard has been bringing guys down fewer than five yards away from the line of scrimmage, which qualifies as a fairly good snap for the defense.
“It’s exciting that a redshirt freshman brings that to us,” Barry said. “And, as a linebacker, that’s how you want to play this game. This game’s a violent game. It’s played by men that are tough suckers and Hayes is definitely that.
Barry won’t lie about Pullard’s progress through two starting assignments – “he’s made his fair share of mistakes,” he says – but he emphasizes that Pullard is able to atone for his mistakes in ways many other football players can’t.
Because of his physicality. Take his near-interception of Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn in Saturday’s game. Pullard should have had that ball. It would have sealed the outcome of the game and averted all of the postgame shenanigans in Las Vegas and the press box. But he didn’t.
Remember, though, that the near-interception came just minutes after a huge sack, one in which he broke through the Utes’ line and chased Wynn down 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage for a momentum-changer.
He may not make every play, but he makes enough of them.
“I’m real happy I’m just a part of this team and able to start with some of the older guys,” Pullard said Wednesday. “I know I’m not making that many mistakes, but that’s a credit to the d-line, the linebackers and the safeties that are out there guiding me through everything.”
Another thing guiding the 6-foot, 225-pound Pullard is his speed. The weakside linebacker spot in Kiffin’s defense has always required one of the quickest guys on the field, and Pullard fits that bill. He ran a 10.9 100-meter dash while running track at Crenshaw in 2009. But he says that doesn’t matter all that much for him.
“Fundamentals are the key to this game,” Pullard said. “Somebody across from you is always gonna be better than you, so whether he’s faster than you or not, you can always beat him with fundamentals.”
So that’s Pullard’s secret: the basics. It seems to be working better for him than it does for a lot of freshmen in college football, though. Heck, look at Shane Horton, a fifth-year senior and an entirely capable defender but someone who is still struggling with consistency as much as Pullard or more. Pullard and Horton have been rotating in for each other so far.
Through two games, you can already forecast what people will probably be saying about Pullard in two years – he’ll be the guy people describe as not doing anything great, but doing everything well. That’ll be Hayes Pullard for you.
“He’s done a bunch of things well,” Barry says now. “But, above all. Hayes brings a physical presence to us and to our defense.