With the USC defense making the switch to a 5-2 alignment under Clancy Pendergast, it was generally assumed that the most likely candidate to start alongside MIKE linebacker Hayes Pullard at the WILL position would be junior Lamar Dawson, a starter since his freshman season, not to mention the owner of one of the most revered jerseys in program history -- No. 55.
When camp opened up earlier this month, however, it was redshirt sophomore Anthony Sarao who was lining up with the first unit, with Dawson running primarily with the second group.
Athletic and physical, Sarao first made a name for himself last season as a reserve and on special teams, and he excelled right from the get-go this spring, proving to be more than capable in his extended role. And while Sarao's strong play has continued throughout March, it’s been Dawson who has taken his game to a whole new level the past couple of weeks.
With both players establishing themselves as two of the defense’s most promising performers, the competition at WILL linebacker has developed into one of the spring’s more interesting position battles.
“I would think that Lamar Dawson is probably our most improved player on our team, and Anthony would be in the top five,” Kiffin said after Thursday’s practice. “They have both had great camps.”
It’s been Dawson, in fact, who has arguably been playing the best football of his career, showcasing improved instincts, speed and playmaking skills. Rewarded with a greater number of reps with the first team defense this week, Kiffin believes Dawson’s performance is directly tied in with his experience and physical maturity.
“I just think it’s a guy going into his third year and sometimes the light just clicks on and his body looks better, he’s getting stronger, he’s playing a lot lower, he’s playing more physical on special teams and on defense,” Kiffin said. “A majority of the guys take a couple of years, and we’re seeing that with guys like Lamar going into their third year who are really shining, and Anthony a year behind that is doing really well.”
With both Dawson and Sarao playing at such a high level, the competition for the starting WILL linebacker spot will likely extend into the fall. But as they continue to push each other, no matter who ultimately lines up with the first group this fall, it’s safe to say that the Trojans are likely to receive some very strong production out of the position.