USC’s defense will be led this year by the play of the linebackers. Lack of available scholarships the past few years has affected the depth of this group, but most of the guys that will see the field already have starting experience under their belts. This group brings experience and playmaker ability behind an above average defensive line. The front seven will be the glue that holds together this USC football team.
Senior Hayes Pullard is the leader of the group and will anchor what should be a solid defense throughout the year. He will start at inside backer playing the Mike position. He is a team captain and has led the team in tackles two of the last three years. Behind him is sophomore Michael Hutchings. Had Pullard chosen not to return for his senior season, Hutchings would be primed to have a breakout year in the middle of the defense. While still having an impact on games this year, he will need to wait one more year to captain the defense.
At Sam (strong-side backer), there is a promising competition going on between sophomore Quinton Powell and redshirt sophomore Jabari Ruffin with both players capable of handling substantial playing time. Both guys earned reps with the first team this offseason. The competition will go on into the season with linebacker coach Peter Sirmon playing whichever whoever has the hot hand. Behind these two is freshman Olajuwon Tucker. At 6’3″ and 220 pounds he has the athleticism to contribute immediately.
The weak-side, or Will, linebacker spot will likely be filled by both senior Lamar Dawson and redshirt junior Anthony Sarao. Both have starting experience and will compete against each other all year for playing time. Dawson has more potential as a playmaker, but has a history of inconsistencies and injuries making Sarao the safer play.
With two seniors seeing heavy playing time and every linebacker but Tucker with starting experience, the linebackers should be leading the defense throughout the year. Due to the amount of competition at Sam and Will, there will be significant rotation throughout the year as guys find their niche on the defense. While Pullard will be the main guy to watch, I’m keeping my eyes on the younger guys in Hutchings and Tucker to see how much they can contribute this season and into the future.