The Trojans got back to the grind earlier this week, taking part in the first round of conditioning drills and volunteer passing sessions of the summer offseason. And while there was a general upbeat aura of optimism apparent in the way that just about each and every member of the team went about their business on Tuesday, the smile on Dion Bailey's face in particular -- even after a grueling workout -- spoke volumes.
“It feels great,” Bailey said shortly before leaving Cromwell Field. “Being out here with my brothers, I’m just excited for every chance that I get to come out and compete.”
Bailey’s enthusiasm is more than justified. A stalwart for USC at strongside linebacker for the past two seasons, the redshirt junior underwent surgery following the 2012 campaign to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder and had to watch in frustration as his teammates went through spring practice without him. Now close to 100% after a rigorous rehab regimen, Bailey is back in action, going through workouts with a renewed sense of appreciation.
“Now, I never wake up and say, ‘Oh man, we have to work out,’” said Bailey, who has 161 career tackles. “I’m up an hour early ready to go every day, excited because you never know when this might be taken away from you. One injury and everything could be done. So I just wake up every morning with the mindset to go out and take advantage of every opportunity.”
And so far, he appears to be well on his way to doing just that. Playing fast and quick to the ball, he looked sharp in the team’s initial passing session, showing no ill effects of his prior injury. There is one major noticeable difference, however -- he’s now lining up at free safety.
Of course, it’s not as if the position is exactly foreign to him. After all, it was at free safety where Bailey made a name for himself in the Class of 2010 as a star at nearby Lakewood (Calif.) High School, racking up 142 tackles and 12 interceptions in his final two seasons. He stayed at safety during his redshirt season before making the change to linebacker in the spring of 2011 to tremendous results.
But standing 6-foot and weighing in at just 208 pounds this past season, Bailey, although incredibly productive, was somewhat of an undersized anomaly at linebacker.
“I never really found out how to play linebacker,” said Bailey, who has trimmed down to 194 pounds. “I was just in there running around, avoiding people ... just using my speed to get around guys that were 100 to 120 pounds bigger than me.”
Known as a sure tackler, he also showcases quick hips and a nose for the ball -- attributes that helped him compile a team-best four interceptions in 2012. That skillset, coupled with the change in philosophy this spring that came with new USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his 5-2 alignment, prompted Bailey's move, and no one is more thrilled about the change in scenery than he is.
“The coaches and I talked about it, and they decided that it was the proper time to make the move, and it’s definitely where I feel comfortable,” Bailey said. “It’s like being back home. It’s where I can use my natural abilities, play in open space, make plays on the ball and make open-field tackles. I’m excited to be out there roaming in the back.”
Still, Pendergast’s defense differs greatly from the one that Bailey played safety in during his redshirt season, so there is still a lot to soak in. Fortunately, the transition has gone smoother than expected so far.
“It’s a simple scheme to explain, but it’s complex for the offense to figure out, and that’s the great thing about it,” Bailey said. “I already know it pretty well, but it’s different ... knowing it on paper and actually going out there and taking reps. So, I’m just taking as many reps as I can so I can get more comfortable with it, and so I’ll be ready to go in the fall.”
But Bailey is well aware that he isn’t going to be able to just walk in and grab the starting free safety role without having to prove himself first, particularly with senior Demetrius Wright and early entrant freshman standout Leon McQuay III battling for the same spot. Possessing the most game experience of any member of the competition -- albeit at a different position -- prepares him for the challenge, and it’s something that he believes will ultimately help all of those involved in the long run.
“There’s a lot of competition going on,” Bailey said. “A lot of guys feel like they might have a better opportunity to play this year ... new coaches and a new scheme. So a lot of guys are amping up their competitive nature, and it’s only going to make the team better.”
With the start of fall camp still two months away, Bailey has plenty of time to continue refining his game and learn the ins and the outs of the defense before pads come on and competition picks up. But, more than anything, he’s just happy to be out on the field with his teammates again with what he views as a golden opportunity.
“I’m so thankful,” Bailey said. “All glory to God for giving me the opportunity to return from injury, return to be in a position like this, coming back to a position that I feel like is home for me, in a scheme that I feel like will give me the chance to showcase my abilities. It’s nothing but positives for me.”