- Johnny Curren, WeAreSC, Reporter
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Dion Bailey's debut as a member of the USC secondary couldn't have gone much better.
A two-year starter at linebacker who, now in his redshirt junior season, has transitioned back to safety -- where he originally made a name for himself at Lakewood (Calif.) as a member of the Class of 2010 -- the 6-foot and 199-pound defensive playmaker emerged as one of the stars of the day in the Trojans' season opening 30-13 victory over Hawaii.
Lining up primarily as a slot defender in USC's nickel package, he was all over the field, recording a team-high seven tackles to go along with one interception, while just missing out on a second pick that slipped through his fingertips.
Bailey's performance speaks volumes by itself, but it's even more impressive when one considers the fact that he missed a number of days of camp leading up to the contest with a hip injury, and there was some doubt as to whether or not he'd even see any action.
"I didn't practice for two weeks, so for the first couple of plays I had the adrenaline going and my legs weren't really underneath me," said Bailey, who revealed that he's now close to, if not 100 percent, fully recovered from the recent injury. "But throughout the game I eventually got my legs, and I was able to settle down and make some plays. I was pretty happy with my performance."
It's not your average player who can produce at such a high level despite missing extensive time on the practice field, all while going through the process of getting acclimated to a new role, but then Bailey has been anything but typical in his time on campus at USC.
One of the defense's sturdiest contributors over the course of the last two seasons despite possessing less-than-ideal size for the strongside linebacker spot that he previously played, Bailey compiled 161 tackles and six interceptions in 24 career starts heading into the current campaign.
A multi-dimensional athlete with a nose for the ball, in Bailey, USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has a unique weapon at his disposal to utilize in a variety of ways, and that's precisely what he did against Hawaii, even calling his number on certain blitz packages as a pass rusher.
"Coach Pendergast has a terrific scheme," Bailey said. "He puts me in the right places and gives me the opportunity to make plays. My whole goal is to capitalize on the opportunities that I'm presented, and besides the interception that I dropped, I was able to capitalize on my opportunities in the game."
And it wasn't just Bailey who stood out in the defensive backfield against the Rainbow Warriors. Starting alongside him was Josh Shaw at free safety and Su'a Cravens at strong safety, and both collected interceptions of their own, with Shaw taking his back for a touchdown. A unit marked by talent and athleticism, it's their versatility that makes them such a valuable piece of the puzzle in USC's defense, with all three players capable of being interchanged at both safety spots, as well as at nickel back.
"The big thing about us three playing together, we can all play a lot of different things," Bailey said. "Josh can play corner, me and Su'a can play nickel, Josh can play nickel, we all can play safety, so I mean, it gives Coach Pendergast the ability to move us around. It helps our defense ... we can show a lot of things."
But the USC safeties, as well as a cornerback corps that is somewhat of a question mark, will have a tall order Saturday at home when they go up against a Washington State squad featuring Mike Leach's dangerous Air Raid offense. Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday threw 65 passes in the team's Week 1 loss to Auburn -- completing 35 for 344 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions -- and on Wednesday, USC coach Lane Kiffin said he wouldn't be surprised if Washington State puts the ball in the air "75 to 80" times against the Trojans.
"This is a game that I personally look at for our secondary to make a statement," Bailey said. "We're going out there and playing against a team that's going to throw the ball 60-plus [times], so we need to go out there and contest every single ball that's in the air. The key is you've just got to keep everything in front of you. Teams like this, they beat you deep. That's how they embarrass you, so we definitely have to come prepared."
And while the Cougars are indeed sure to come after the USC secondary early and often, their high-flying passing attack also presents an increased opportunity for Bailey -- who's known as a ball-hawk -- to showcase his talents on a grand scale, something he's more than looking forward to.
"I take this game as a personal challenge," Bailey said. "How many ever balls come my way, every opportunity is a chance to display my abilities ... to get my hands on the ball, and to pretty much just be a playmaker. This is a game that can definitely help me with my future, showing my versatility, so I have to go out, and I have to put a great performance on."