Back in the spring, the performance of Anthony Sarao was one of the major talking points of the March and April workouts. Splitting time with Lamar Dawson in a heated competition at WILL linebacker, he was more than holding his own. In fact, by all indications, he was on the verge of a potential breakout campaign.
Once the 2013 season got under way, however, Sarao was noticeably missing, relegated to the sideline as Dawson ran exclusively with the first-team defense.
But rather than dwelling on the situation, the third-year sophomore chose instead to hunker down and make the most out of the hand that he was dealt.
“After spring ball I had a lot of buzz around me, and when the games started and I wasn’t really playing, in the back of my head I was kind of confused,” said the 6-foot, 215-pound Sarao. “But to be honest, it just made me hungrier. It gave me extra motivation to prepare like I was a starter.”
Fast-forward to the present, and it’s evident now that Sarao’s drive and level-headed outlook served him well. Stepping in when Dawson went down with a season-ending knee injury just prior to USC’s Oct. 26 matchup with Utah, he has taken advantage of the opportunity, making a name for himself with his energetic, yet steady, brand of play.
“I’m just so hungry to get to that ball. When I see it, I have to get there,” said Sarao, who has 29 tackles this season. “I’ve been like that since I was little. I’m always around the ball.”
And it was just last weekend -- in the Trojans’ dramatic victory over No. 4 Stanford -- when Sarao had his best outing yet. Pacing the team with a career-high 12 stops in addition to one forced fumble, he led a strong effort by an inspired defensive group that held the Cardinal to a season-low 17 points, and their prolific ground game to a modest 210 yards.
“It definitely felt good … coming in and watching films and seeing how I played, but really, I was more happy about how the entire defense played,” Sarao said. “I’ll definitely remember the way we played in that game for the rest of my life.”
For Sarao, the win was especially gratifying on another level. Having given a verbal pledge to Stanford in 2010 during his junior year at Absecon (N.J.) Holy Spirit, he flipped to USC almost a year later due in part to the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh, as well as some key members of his staff, to the San Francisco 49ers. That plus an eye-opening official visit to the Trojans campus late in the recruiting process sealed the deal.
With some familiar faces across the line this past Saturday, Sarao’s competitive spirit was peaked.
“When I got on the field, and I saw those colors, and I saw some of the players that I know, and some of the coaches that I know too, it gave me a little more juice,” Sarao said. “When it was the fourth quarter, during grind time, it was definitely in my head.”
And now, having come up with what was undoubtedly the most impressive game of his Trojans career, Sarao admits he’s more confident than ever.
Still, in his mind at least, he has a whole lot more to prove -- and he’s determined to do just that.
“This is definitely a golden opportunity, just to be able to step in and play this big of a role,” Sarao said. “I just thank Coach [Ed Orgeron] and the entire coaching staff for this chance. I’m really trying to show them more every game -- that I’m getting better and that they can really trust me to solidify the spot.”