What was once a 180-degree role reversal has now come full circle for Dion Bailey. The redshirt junior, who was recruited to USC as a defensive back but converted to linebacker two seasons ago, switched back to his original position last spring after the Trojans changed defensive schemes.
After missing all of spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery, Bailey is set to start as one of the team’s safeties — a more than welcome change.
“It’s my more natural position,” Bailey said. “The coaches felt like it was a great time for the move, so I was excited to go back.”
Bailey, a product of Lakewood High School in Carson, Calif. was ranked by ESPN as the No. 31 safety in the high school class of 2010.
After spending his redshirt season at safety, USC head coach Lane Kiffin approached him about making the switch to linebacker. With more and more Pac-12 teams implementing up-tempo offenses, Kiffin thought adding another speedy ball hawk to the front seven would help cover opposing offenses that frequently use four- or five-receiver sets.
Though the reasoning was sound, Bailey wasn’t exactly excited about leaving the spot he had grown so accustomed to playing in high school.
“I really just made the best out of [playing] linebacker,” Bailey said. “Just did whatever it takes to help the team.”
Though he might not have enjoyed it, he proved to be a prominent defensive force during the two years he started as linebacker.
During his redshirt freshman season in 2011, Bailey recorded 81 tackles, tied with Hayes Pullard for most on the team, along with two sacks and two interceptions. For his efforts, he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.
Bailey was again stellar in the 2012 campaign, recording four interceptions and 80 tackles, good for third on the team. But the unit as a whole struggled, surrendering 24.3 points a game en route to a disappointing 7-6 season. Though the team ranked fifth in the nation in sacks, its turnover margin was a subpar minus-two.
“If you look at the stats in the past century, the best two teams when it comes down to the end of the year have the best turnover margin,” Bailey said. “It’s all about the ball. Whoever protects the ball and gets the ball out the most wins the game.”
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, a former coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs and most recently the California Golden Bears, replaces Monte Kiffin and has implemented a 5-2 defense in place of the old 4-3 system.
The hope is that the increased amount of players on the line of scrimmage will put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and play into USC’s strengths.
Bailey is confident the new system will also play to his personal strengths. Listed at 6-foot and 200 lbs, he has the measurements to play in the NFL but probably lacks the size to make it as a linebacker at the next level.
“[Linebacker] was never a position I felt I would play at the next level,” Bailey said. “I’m 200 pounds. I don’t think I could have survived at that position much longer.”
Bailey lost some of the weight he had put on to make it as a linebacker, and feels like he has regained the speed he needs to cover the best receivers in the Pac-12. Though his footwork in the defensive backfield is admittedly a bit rusty, the 5-2 scheme calls for more man-to-man coverage, which has made the new system easy for him to pick up.
“Coach [Monte] Kiffin’s concepts were more zone [coverage], so it was a lot more keys and reads that every position has to make, and it takes a lot more thought,” Bailey said. “This defense is a lot more simple, so it allows us to play a lot faster.”
With last year’s safeties T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling both graduated and in the NFL, Bailey is expected to slide into one of the starting spots, with freshman Su’a Cravens, redshirt junior Josh Shaw and senior Demetrius Wright all in the discussion to start alongside him.
From the 5-2, one of the two safeties will frequently come up and play alongside the two linebackers, making the hybrid spot perfect for Bailey.
“The safety position fits him well in this defense,” junior linebacker Lamar Dawson said. “He comes down in the box just like a linebacker, he’s just doing a lot more coverage.”
Bailey’s experience at linebacker has expanded his skill set, which should help him both this season and with his future draft stock.
“Getting physical, fighting off blocks, all that stuff I learned over the past two years at linebacker definitely will help me in the secondary,” Bailey said.
Though shoulder surgery brought Bailey back to feeling 100 percent physically, it did cost him a lot of practice time in the spring and Pendergast believes Bailey needs a little more time before he’s in game shape.
“He really missed the reps in the spring, so that shows up,” Pendergast said. “The more he’s in a natural position to play there, the more he’ll improve.”
And Pendergast is convinced the defensive stalwart will be ready in time for the season opener against Hawaii on Aug. 29.
“He’s continuing to work at it and just has got to continue to get reps,” Pendergast said. “It’s a lot different being that far back off the ball and seeing the whole field, but he’s working at it diligently, and he’ll continue to make progress.”