Trojans key in on speed to stop spread
Perhaps no player embodies USCâs recent defensive transformation more than sophomore linebacker Dion Bailey. In part, thatâs because of his size.
Bailey stands at 6 feet tall and weighs 210 pounds, which is roughly the size of the prototypical wide receiver or defensive back, not the standard linebacker. Heâs smaller than most at his position â so small that USC might not have even offered him a scholarship 10 years ago. But he is quick: His motor rarely stops running, and he can cover a lot of ground.
A converted safety, Bailey starkly contrasts some of the Trojansâ recent All-American linebackers, such as Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga, who were each at least two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Bailey.
But Bailey represents the latest trend in college football and at USC: prioritizing speed over size.
âWe do that on purpose,â said Scottie Hazelton, the Trojansâ linebackers coach. âWe get speed guys in there, because when teams go to the one-back or the spread stuff, you need a guy like that to run outside the box. The days of the big 250-pound linebackers are gone.â
As the season opener on Sept. 1 against Hawaiâi nears, USCâs defense has evolved to emphasize speed as a way to stop spread offenses, which are increasingly common throughout the Pac-12 and college football.
The spread is an umbrella term that describes a variety of wide-open offenses that range from the zone-read option installed by Chip Kelly at Oregon to the Air Raid offense triggered under Mike Leach at Washington State.
There are variations, but the unifying principals are these: no huddle, shotgun snap, one running back, no fullback and four or five wide receivers.
The goal, first and foremost, is to spread defenders across the width of the field to give running backs and receivers more space. This is why hybrid linebackers in the mold of Bailey are so common nowadays, smaller but more comfortable in pass coverage and closing in to tackle a player in space.
Defenses, especially out west, have adjusted in the hope of slowing down teams that utilize the spread system, most notably Oregon. And itâs easy to grasp why: The Ducks have won three consecutive conference titles while averaging more than 40 points per contest in each of the last two season â the first school in Pac-12 history to do so.
âWeâre getting more speed on the field,â Bailey said. âWeâre not playing in the SEC, you know, ground and pound. We have to be able to run sideline to sideline. Thatâs how weâve built our defense.â
Naturally, the Trojansâ top two strongside linebackers are now converted defensive backs in Bailey and senior Tony Burnett, who moved over during the spring.
âReally, your linebackers are becoming defensive ends, your smaller [defensive] backers are becoming your inside backers and your safeties are becoming outside linebackers,â Hazelton said. âItâs the way of the world.â
Hybrid defenders give schools an advantage in that coaches donât have to change schemes. Theyâre not tossing aside playbooks and changing philosophies to combat the spread. Theyâre targeting different types of athletes.
âYou have to recruit differently,â said USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron. âMore speed. And itâs not just speed. These guys have to make plays in open spaces, because the spread teamsâll create one on ones.â
Initially, teams combated the spread by instituting âNickelâ or âDimeâ packages that would bring in an extra defensive back, or two, as in the latter case. This strategy, however, would mean their defenses would be vulnerable against a good running game or a balanced spread team.
So for USC, which has utilized a 4-3 defense for the last decade, four down lineman and three linebackers, it doesnât need to dramatically switch schemes. Itâs just using different players such as Bailey, big enough to inch close to the line of scrimmage and stop a bruising fullback, and quick enough to stay with a speedy wideout 20 yards down field. And it can disguise coverages, too.
But this defensive makeover, so to speak, hasnât occurred overnight.
Two years ago, USC posted its worst statistical season since 1955, giving up 400 yards per game â a program worst. And through the first five games last fall, that average mark improved by just 20 yards per contest.
âOh, we were still new to the system,â Bailey said, trying to hold back a grin. âOur first year, we were extremely bad. Our second year, we were just trying to turn it around. We had a lot of new guys. Now, we actually have some experience.â
The Trojans certainly do have some experience with eight returning starters back on defense, including injured senior defensive end Devon Kennard, who tore a pectoral muscle in late July and could miss most of the season. The entire back seven returns, highlighted by preseason candidate for the Thorpe Award as the top defensive back and All-American free safety T.J. McDonald, who chose to forgo the NFL draft and return for his senior season.
And then again, thereâs also Bailey, who along with sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard, who last year led the team in tackles with 81.
âWe have all the guys in place,â McDonald said. âWe have to keep doing what weâre doing, but I think weâll be that shutdown defense that everybody is asking for.â