LOS ANGELES -- One of the main areas of emphasis for the USC Trojans in recruiting is to bring in great athletes. This isn't a unique mission, but several members of this staff (Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Kennedy Polamalu) have shown the ability to get them, as evidenced by their previous work at USC under Pete Carroll.
Kiffin has stated on many occasions that most of the better athletes on this current team are first- and second-year players (in other words, players who were brought in under his staff). The general feeling is that while there is certainly some top-end talent among the upperclassmen in players like Matt Barkley, Matt Kalil and T.J. McDonald, there are not enough elite athletes on the roster right now to get the Trojans back among the top teams in college football.
Finding these players comes down to accurate recruiting evaluations. USC is always going to attract its share of great players out of name recognition, but to truly load up the roster the coaches must do some legwork and find the players who ultimately can succeed within this system. There aren't better examples of that then true freshman WR Marqise Lee and redshirt freshman linebacker Dion Bailey.
Lee was certainly a great performer at Gardena Serra (Calif.) High School, where he was named the California State Athlete of the Year as a senior. In addition to starring on the football field, Lee was also a standout defender on the basketball team and had the second-best long jump in the nation. With those kind of skills, Lee was a known commodity, but his insistence on playing wide receiver in college was a bit of a twist.
Many recruiting experts had Lee pegged as a future defensive back, but Lee wanted to play offense and made that intention clear. He had seen some success as a receiver as a senior at Serra, with 57 catches for 1,409 yards and 24 touchdowns, but he had made only three catches for 29 yards as a junior.
Of course, that junior year, Serra was an undefeated state title team that also featured Robert Woods and George Farmer. If Lee couldn't get much time at receiver on that team, what made him think things would be different at USC, with Woods and Farmer as his teammates once again?
Lee held true to his wishes, however, and entered fall camp as a receiver. His impact was felt right away. At first it was a few standout plays here and there, but before long those plays seemed to happen on a daily basis. Kiffin, who is known for developing receivers, praised Lee's body control when going up for the ball and began comparing him to former USC star and current Tennessee Titans receiver Damian Williams.
By the time the season opener rolled around, Lee found himself in the Trojans starting lineup alongside Woods. Through five games he is second to Woods in receptions with 21 catches for 323 yards and three touchdowns.
"I just want to build trust with my teammates; I want them to know they can count on me," Lee said. "They know I come out here and work hard and execute my plays."
His impact as a quality second option for Barkley was evident in the Trojans' recent shootout victory over Arizona. Woods had his impressive numbers with 14 catches for 255 yards and two touchdowns, but Lee contributed eight catches for 144 yards and a score of his own -- coming inches short of a second touchdown, as well.
The duo gives Kiffin two athletic playmakers to work with and, with a quarterback like Barkley at the helm, this offense is capable of producing big numbers if opponents are not allowed to focus solely on a weapon like Woods.
"So far it's been amazing just to be on the field," Lee said. "I don't care about catches or touchdowns, I just want to be on the field helping the team get wins."
One of the big keys for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to run the defense he likes is the presence of athletic and aggressive linebackers who can run. Carroll was a protégé of Kiffin's, and one of the first moves he made upon taking over as USC head coach before the 2001 season was to take safety Matt Grootegoed and put him at outside linebacker.
Grootegoed was known as a savvy playmaker but weighed only 210 pounds. The switch worked, as Grootegoed ended up being named an All-American linebacker three seasons later and was a defensive cornerstone of the Trojans' resurgence under Carroll.
This past spring Dion Bailey, who also is 210 pounds, was moved to outside linebacker from safety. It's too early to call Bailey another Grootegoed, but there are similarities in the logic behind the move. Bailey was known as a ballhawk at Lakewood (Calif.) High School. In two years with the Lancers, Bailey had 142 tackles, 19 pass deflections and 12 interceptions.
He redshirted for the Trojans last year behind a logjam at safety until the USC coaches realized he fit the mold of what they were looking for at linebacker. Bailey was hesitant at first about the switch, because of the different skills involved at the two positions.
"The biggest adjustment is the physicality of playing linebacker," Bailey said. "You have a lot more contact in the trenches than back in the secondary -- you are taking on 300-pounders instead of facing 180-pound receivers.
"In spring I was trying to get a feel for the position, but once fall camp came around, I felt like I had a home at my new position, and it's worked out pretty good so far. Hope I can keep it up."
Bailey earned the starting spot at strongside linebacker during fall camp and has gotten off to a fast start, leading the team with 40 tackles. He also has two tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble.
"The fake punt that I stopped is the one that stands out," said Bailey of his third-quarter tackle against Utah that helped lead to a USC victory. "Every game I go out and try to have at least one big play, and I feel like that's the biggest one for me so far."
Not only is Bailey leading the defense in tackles, but the second-leading tackler is his fellow redshirt freshman outside linebacker Hayes Pullard. It's easy to see the future vision of the Trojans with those two as experienced veterans, or on offense next year with Woods and Lee both a year older and wiser. These are the type of young playmakers who will need to guide the USC program in the coming years, and Orgeron is the one responsible for identifying the next round of prospects with similar traits.
"Dion and Marqise are great athletes," Orgeron said. "Both of them have the ability to go get the ball. Dion was a great safety and he could hit. With Marqise it was his flat speed, he just tore up his opponents. Both of them are elite athletes, we need more guys like them."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.