In 2008, USC had a dominant group of starting linebackers that arguably could have been the best ever based on talent alone.
Rey Maualuga led the team in tackles with 79 that year, followed by Brian Cushing at 73, Kaluka Maiava at 66, and Clay Matthews at 57. Watching them on the field was phenomenal as they flew over the field making astounding tackles keeping opponents at bay and holding them to an average of nine points a game. The Trojans only allowed 2.73 yards per rushing attempt and 3.6 yards per play.
Fast forward to 2011 and we are watching the best linebacker group since that 2008 squad. No, I am not saying that they are like the 2008 group of linebackers, that produced two first-round picks, but I am saying that they’re the closest to matching them, and may even match them eventually.
After watching Friday night’s USC 42-17 blowout win against the Colorado Buffs, I caught a glimpse of the potential and future of a linebacker group that could devastate opponent’s to come.
I was surprised to see Lamar Dawson starting on the field over Chris Galippo. The true freshman, who dons the prestigious No. 55 that was worn by other great linebackers in USC’s past (such as Willie McGinest, Junior Seau, Chris Claiborne, and Keith Rivers) had an underwhelming game as he made four tackles, but also missed on several tackles. However, I did see why linebacker coach Joe Barry is excited about Dawson as he was moving very well for being 230 pounds.
Head coach Lane Kiffin told Michael Lev of the Orange County Register that this move was "performance based" and also to give Galippo a chance to perform at a level on par with the expectations of the coaching staff, like Allen Bradford last season when the running back was benched late in the season.
"I just told him he’s got two choices: Practice your tail off, prove us wrong and earn your spot back, or sit around and pout," Kiffin said in Lev’s report. "He had a great week of practice, especially later in the week, and made some big plays (in the game)."
Kiffin also confirmed that Dawson would be starting next week’s game against the Washington Huskies, who have beaten the Trojans in each of the last two seasons.
More USC football news: Freshman Lamar Dawson to start at linebacker against Washington
With Dion Bailey looking to be back with the team for next week’s showdown, USC will start three freshman (Dawson as the lone true LB, and Bailey, Pullard being the redshirts) against a Washington offense that has been averaging 33.6 points a game.
But I cannot help but think about the future of this group.
Bailey is leading the team in tackles with 67 for the season, which is a robust 8.6 tackles per game. The freshman, who missed Friday’s game with a concussion that he suffered in the loss to Stanford last Saturday, has anchored the team’s defense.
Pullard displays great closing speed on the field and looks like a brut when he hits. He missed a crucial tackle in the game against Stanford where he gave a blow to fullback Tyler Gaffney, who recovered and scored a touchdown, but that was just a speed bump to his stellar year.
With this group gaining more experience together as the minutes of the game run through, so will their rapport together on the field. Bailey, Pullard, and Dawson can play together for the next 2-4 years.
The 2008 group was led by seniors, punishing teams with a great knowledge of the game and vigor.
Now let’s see what these freshman can do when they hit their senior years.