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Tradition of elite linebackers alive in 55

A linebacker's odds of winning the Heisman aren't considerably higher than the average college football fan's.

There's been only one defensive player in Heisman's history to take the award, and Michigan's Charles Woodson had to double as an elite punt returner and occasional wide receiver to break new ground.

The award goes to the nation's best player, and "best" is typically quantified by numbers. The sexier stats are reserved for quarterbacks and running backs. That's just how the world works. Still, Heisman winners rarely are not part of elite teams, and elite teams rarely exist without top-flight defenses. At the heart of those units are the linebackers, a position with a tradition at USC as rich as the "Tailback U" mythology. The recent crème de la crème at linebacker also belong to "Club 55."

Membership, along with the hallowed No. 55 jersey, has been offered to a select few over the past few decades. Names such as Junior Seau. Keith Rivers. Willie McGinest. Chris Claiborne. Names forever etched in USC lore. As part of the ESPN Los Angeles Heisman series, Claiborne and McGinest, along with current true freshman Lamar Dawson, shared their insights in separate interviews on what being a great linebacker and donning No. 55 are all about.

On receiving the No. 55 jersey

Willie McGinest (1990-93): "I was given it from the beginning. I did a photo shoot with Junior Seau, like he was passing the torch. I don't think he had to [explain the significance]. One of the best players in college football at the time, a linebacker. I think it was self-explanatory. But the coaches did explain the number I was taking, the responsibility and the big shoes to fill."

Chris Claiborne (1996-98): "I wore No. 30 in high school, and I wanted to wear No. 3. All great receivers [including Curtis Conway, Keyshawn Johnson] had worn it. I wanted to turn it into a defensive number. [Coach John Robinson] said, 'No, you're gonna wear 55.' And you know what? I'm so grateful to him. He did a lot for me by putting that number on me. If I would have worn 3 and did the same things, yeah, it would have been great. It would have been nice. But wearing 55, that makes it special."

Lamar Dawson (2011): "I was surprised [to receive it], but I guess they just wanted for me to be that guy. To be the next great linebacker."

On the responsibility of wearing No. 55

LD: "The number is just motivation for me, because guys that have worn it before me, they worked hard, did the right things."

WM: "The guys now understand when you put that on, you're not representing it if you're hurt, you're not representing it if you're not productive."

CC: "Willie McGinest was an All-American. Now what can you do with it? You gotta get to at least All-American to say you wore the number, right. If you don't get to that, you're the 55 that kind of wasted that number. I'm glad I wasn't that guy."

On what it takes to be a great linebacker

CC: "It definitely takes knowledge of the game. You have to really learn the game. You need to be a smart guy. You need to be a studious guy."

WM: "We ask linebackers to do a lot. Cover. Rush. Stop the run. All different types of things. It's kind of like a hybrid; it does a little bit of everything. Out of all the guys, you have to also be able to think on your feet, get people lined up, make calls and make adjustments on the fly."

CC: "You gotta want to hit. You gotta love the fact that you get to be physical. If you don't love that, you shouldn't be playing that position."

WM: "I think you gotta be a little off, too, to be able to like it and want to run into somebody on every play, time in and time out. I think you gotta have a couple screws loose or just like the fact that you like hitting people."

On the commonalities between linebackers and quarterbacks

LD: "We call the plays, and we get everybody lined up. It's similar to the quarterback."

CC: "When [a quarterback] reads the line of scrimmage and they got an overload, he needs to get his team out of a bad play. It's the same thing with defense. I gotta get my guys out of bad plays."

WM: "It's the person that's pretty much the center and in the middle of all the chaos, as we like to say. That basically controls the fate of the defense. If your linebackers aren't together -- if your linebackers can't get calls, can't get lined up, direct traffic and do certain things -- your defense is kind of all over the place."

CC: "Guys who play the game longer, like Ray Lewis [University of Miami], he's done a great job keeping himself in shape. And mentally. He's ahead of the guys he's playing. He's studied the film and done the things he's supposed to do. Willie McGinest played for 15 years because of that."

On the Heisman Trophy not being geared toward linebackers

CC: "Look at how a Heisman looks. It's a guy stiff-arming with the ball. How many opportunities do the defensive guys get [to do that]?"

WM: "Somebody on defense would have to do an awful lot. I mean, they would have [to do] an awful lot to even get [in] the top five."

On what it means to be a part of the USC linebacker lineage

CC: "It's very special to be a part of a discussion, whether they're saying this guy's the best guy or that guy's the best guy. At the end of the day, all you can ask for as a player or athlete, especially playing the game at a high level, is to be part of the discussion."