Steady hand in the middle

LOS ANGELES -- In his short time at USC, Lamar Dawson has developed a reputation as one of the Trojans' brightest young stars. Fast and athletic with his imposing 6-foot-2, 235-pound size, the sophomore middle linebacker plays with a physicality that's apparent on each and every down.

But don't let Dawson fool you. Whether it's on the field or off, he's actually as low-key as it gets.

That's not a negative characteristic to have -- not even for someone who mans what many consider to be the most violent position in football. On the contrary, it might actually be the secret to his success.

"He's not a guy that ever really gets up or gets down," Trojans first-year linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton said. "It's a good personality [trait] to have for a linebacker. He kind of controls the game that way."

That cerebral, yet highly efficient, brand of play was on impressive display last weekend against Stanford, though it went almost unnoticed under the haze of the Trojans' 21-14 upset loss.

Playing alongside fellow sophomore standout linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, Dawson had arguably his finest performance as a Trojan to date, finishing with a game-high 10 tackles. Not a bad showing for a guy making his very first start of the season. He played sparingly against Syracuse the week before after missing the season opener with an unspecified injury.

His return was well-timed though, both for a Trojans defense currently allowing 378.67 yards of total offense a game, and for Dawson personally, who isn't exactly fond of standing on the sidelines.

"It just felt good to get back on the field with my team, and line up on defense, and make the calls and just make plays," Dawson said. "It was tough for me to just watch everybody practice when I was out, but I got a lot of mental reps, and I think it showed up on the field last week."

Not many players can sit out of practices for an extended period of time, then get right back on the field and contribute without missing a beat thanks to "mental reps," but Dawson is a unique case.

"Playing football is my second nature," he says.

"That's one of Lamar's blessings, he has a really high football IQ," added Hazelton. "There aren't many guys that I've seen that do a better job than he does with taking something that you tell him one time in a meeting, and then taking it right to the field. That's where he's exceptional."

That innate football savvy is an attribute not commonly seen in a player so young, and it's a big reason why, as just a freshman last season, Dawson was awarded the most prestigious jersey number a player can receive at USC -- No. 55.

Reserved for linebackers possessing the rarest of talents, the legendary digits have been donned by Trojans like Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers.

"It's just an honor," Dawson said. "A lot of the greats have worn this jersey -- Junior Seau wore it. The best linebacker wears this jersey, and it's just an honor to be in it."

The Kentucky native still has a lot more to prove before he can ever be mentioned in the same breath as the other members of the No. 55 club, but he has shown he's more than willing to put in the time and effort to accomplish just that.

"It's important to Lamar to get better each and every day," said Hazelton in discussing Dawson's work ethic. "It's important to him to understand what he's doing right and what he's doing wrong so that he can improve on those things. It's important to him to do things right and to understand what his role is."

On Saturday, Dawson's primary role will revolve around helping the Trojans bounce back from last week's loss with a strong defensive effort against a California team that averages 208.67 yards rushing per game.

A challenging task to be certain, but with Dawson's body now ready to go, not to mention the steady, even-keeled presence that he brings to the lineup, the Trojans' defense looks to be in a much better place now than where it was just a couple of weeks ago.