Young Players Add to USC Linebacker Puzzle

Young Players Add to USC Linebacker Puzzle

Joe Barry is in his second season as the Trojans' linebackers coach. And he's making decisions as if it were a puzzle piece, using a roster full on talent but short on experience.

Joe Barry has a problem.

Luckily, it's one many coaches would like to have.

At USC, there are too many linebackers to come by. Barry, in his second year as the Trojans' linebackers coach, has to decide which pieces to place where in this season's linebacking puzzle.

Some guys are quick, like Shane Horton (6-1, 215) or Hayes Pullard (6-0, 225).

Some guys are plain big, like Chris Galippo (6-2, 250) or Lamar Dawson (6-2, 235), the slated starter and backup inside, respectively.

Some guys are known for their strength, like Marquis Simmons (6-1,215) or Dion Bailey (6-0, 200).

And then there are those with fresh legs and open minds, like newcomers Anthony Sarao or Tre Madden.

But Barry doesn't care about characteristics, aside from their ability to be a playmaker.

"The linebacker position is about making plays. You're right in the middle of the action, you're right in the middle of the run, right in the middle of the pass and you have to make plays in both aspects of the game equally. We got to get to that level. We have to make plays," Barry stressed.

Currently, there are 15 linebackers on the Trojans' roster. Assured starters will be veterans Chris Galippo and Shane Horton. With the exception of a few players, most roles are uncertain.

Galippo had a disappointing season as the starting inside linebacker in 2010, recording just 29 tackles in 13 games. But Barry said this offseason was huge for the senior in terms of maturity.

"The thing I've been most impressed with, and even last year, he's really grown up. Not that he was immature I'm not saying that, he's just grown up. He's become a man," Barry said. "He's taking care of his business on and off the field, he's worked his ever-living butt off this summer in the weight room."

And Horton, a former safety and transfer from UNLV, has been a Trojan for four years. After having hip surgery this past December, Horton said he feels better than he ever has. But he's also never had as prominent of a role than he will have this season.

"I think a lot of times especially guys going into their fifth year, their senior year, they don't know how much football they're going to play beyond this. It's not always assumed that every guy goes and plays at the next level so I think Shane is very excited [because] he's healthy," Barry said.

The strongside spot is a contest between Bailey and Simmons, although Bailey's performance as of late has put him inches ahead.

"I feel like I'm starting to pick it up and get the hang of it. I'm starting to like this position, really," Bailey said.

When you look back at USC's linebacker history, it's not fair to this new crop. It's not fair to compare, not fair to judge. Yet that's what every fan and critic does, because, well, they can.

"The expectations of this place are always very high just because of the great players that have been here in the past. And that's great. I love that. I think you come to school at USC to play linebacker to be great," Barry said.

When you have four NFL linebackers emerging from two consecutive classes within the last five years, it is commonplace to ask, "is he as good as he was?"

"I think we're on our way to get there. We're starting to catch picks,learn the playbook inside and out and you know when you can learn the playbook you're able to play fast so you know what's coming," redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard said.

But it doesn't make sense to compare anymore. It's a different corps this time around, it's a different playing style and it's an altogether different puzzle, one that Ken Norton Jr. had to solve then and Barry has to figure out now.

The size is obviously different. Aside from Galippo and Lamar Dawson, the Kentucky product awarded No. 55 while he's yet to play a college down, the average linebacker at USC today is 30 pounds lighter than the linebackers from 2006-2009. On the plus, a reduction in weight means an increase in speed.

"Our second year in the system they feel more comfortable now and they're playing fast. When you play fast good things will happen," assistant head coach Monte Kiffin said.

"I'm always very confident, but we have a lot of work. Talk is cheap. We have to prove it, starting on September first and carrying it all the way through the last game," Barry said.

Expected to be the leader of a team's defense, the football program has a lot riding on this young crop of linebackers, which includes nine underclassmen. But they're trying to learn quickly, picking the brains of guys like Horton and Galippo.

"They're veterans out here. It's like having a second coach on the field at all times so I'm never lost anymore like how I was in the spring," Bailey said.

A lost linebacker is noticeable on the field. If he doesn't know his assignment, it's obvious. It can affect the entire defense.

But confidence and leadership stand out, too. And if the Trojans have enough of both, Barry can make his decisions with a little more ease.

And, just maybe, people will think about today's group for their speed, alongside past trios known for their power.

As of now, it's all just a work in progress. And even Barry is uncertain whether the pieces he has will fit into the puzzle he imagines.

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