With fall camp now in the books, and the Trojans set to open the 2013 season at Hawaii this Thursday, there's a heightened sense of excitement running through the team. It was evident in the demeanor of the players leaving Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on late Sunday afternoon following practice.
"It feels good," said junior inside linebacker Lamar Dawson. "I'm just ready to play. We're finally out of camp, and I'm excited to hit someone in a different colored jersey."
And it's Dawson, more than anyone, whose eagerness to hit the field is at what might be an all-time high -- and for good reason.
A prized prospect out of high school in the Class of 2011, Dawson was awarded the famed No. 55 jersey -- once worn by Trojans linebacker greats Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers -- upon his arrival at USC. He has had his bright moments to be sure, starting 13 games and collecting 102 tackles in his career, but he also has had his struggles, appearing to completely disappear from action at times.
But after a stellar fall camp that came on the heels of an eye-opening spring, Dawson appears poised to break out with his best season yet in a Trojans uniform, and for him, the team's Aug. 29 opener just can't come soon enough.
"I'm ready to get back on the field and show how much I've improved from last year ... to just show my technique and put it all on film," said Dawson, who prepped at Danville (Ky.) Boyle County. "I feel like I've improved in a lot of different ways -- in getting off of blocks, in blitzing, man-coverage, and especially in just knowing the defense."
The first signs of improvement were apparent back in March. Part of an ultra-competitive position battle with Anthony Sarao at WILL linebacker, Dawson immediately took to the Trojans' new 5-2 defensive scheme, installed by Clancy Pendergast. He made plays all over the field, and on a much more consistent basis than he ever did at middle linebacker in the team's previous 4-3 set.
"I really just bought into Coach Pendergast's defense, and I really just took it day-by-day, and I just worked as hard as I could," said Dawson, who stands 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds. "We play with five defensive linemen -- they cover up the linebackers, and we're free to run from sideline to sideline. It really allows myself and the other linebackers to get to the football and to make more plays."
His high level of play extending into fall camp, Dawson has been hard not to notice this month. Taking the vast majority of the snaps with the first-team defense over the course of the last two weeks, his transformation from an unsure athlete with potential into a veteran performer ready to shine appears nearly complete.
Not surprisingly, when the team's season-opening depth chart was released this past Saturday, Dawson found his name sitting atop the list at WILL linebacker all by itself -- a significant feat considering Sarao, as well as promising freshman Quinton Powell, each had a strong month of August as well at the position.
But as the current bearer of one of the program's most revered numbers, Dawson knows that he has much more to prove on the actual field of play -- starting later this week in Honolulu. For the first time, however, it's a challenge he appears ready to take on.
"There's a great deal of pressure that comes with wearing No. 55, and I'm just going to try to take it day-by-day, week-by-week and just do my best to live up to it," Dawson said. "This is a big season for me."