LOS ANGELES -- Wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods might have highlighted the youth on USC's roster last season, but no position group hammered that point home more than linebacker, where redshirt freshmen Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey started the season opener, and true freshman Lamar Dawson joined the starting lineup during the second half of the season.
Starting three freshmen was discussed among the media during fall camp, with the majority feeling it would be a bit of a struggle. But the group didn't just survive the season -- it turned into a strength of the defense and provided glimpses of what's to come.
The trio will hit spring ball with another year in the system, and the confidence that comes with it. More importantly, it will have a year of playing time under its belt.
It all starts with Dawson's move to the becoming the unquestioned leader at middle linebacker. Chris Galippo's presence last season allowed Dawson to work his way into the defense gradually, as he finished with 25 tackles and one sack in eight games. Though Galippo started the first few games, Dawson's play during practice eventually bumped him ahead of the fifth-year senior.
"(Things clicked) probably during the second half of the season," Dawson said. "Just getting more reps and getting used to the feel of the college atmosphere."
He said the speed of the game proved to be the biggest hurdle in jumping straight from high school to college. But with that adjustment made, Dawson won't be shy in facing the challenge of being a full-time starter.
"It's why I came here -- just to take over and be the leader of the defense," he said.
Dawson said he enjoyed learning on the fly from Pullard and Bailey, who were first-year starters themselves and arguably the team's biggest surprises over the course of the season. The outside linebackers finished with 81 tackles each -- tied for the team lead -- and combined for six sacks and three forced fumbles. Bailey said he is looking forward to picking up where they left off last season.
"It definitely helped develop our chemistry," Bailey said of playing alongside Pullard and Dawson down the stretch. "It's going to be a big spring for us to learn and get to know each other's habits and what we can work on as a corps."
Bailey said the biggest challenge will be developing a vocal presence, as Galippo filled that role last season.
"We want to work on being a lot more vocal and leading the charge this year," he said.
Eyebrows were raised when Bailey initially was moved to linebacker from his natural safety position. He resisted the move at first but has since bought into the position switch.
"I'm going to try and make a home at this position," he said. "I feel like I had an OK year last year. We took a lot of people by surprise. But this year I'm going to try to step it up, because we want to be a presence not just felt through the conference, but through the whole country."
Bailey listed his physicality, meeting running plays at the line of scrimmage and tallying more tackles for loss as things he will be working on through spring ball and into next season. He said his goal is to bring more of a physical presence to the defense, adding that he also is looking forward to having the group's pass defense ability tested on a regular basis by arguably the best passing offense in the country.
An interesting twist to the linebacker group is that it still will be difficult to find a unit with less experience in the conference in 2012. And not just on the field.
With former linebackers coach Joe Barry taking a job with the San Diego Chargers, the Trojans brought in former North Dakota State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton to coach the linebackers. He has been with them team for only about a week, but the mesh has been seamless.
"He is a very intelligent guy and has a great grasp on our defense already," Bailey said. "We're not learning anything new, and he knows the terms and everything. So that's a positive for us, being a young group."
Dawson said the continuity, combined with the group's on-field experience, could lead to some added looks this fall.
"It's going to be real good," Dawson said. "We're making a lot of adjustments with our defense, and I like how it's going."
Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.