The Trojans defended 630 plays against three or more receiver sets a year ago, so the redshirt freshman provides added athleticism needed to play the pass. Working with the first-team defense at strongside linebacker, Bailey is also playing corner in nickel packages.
"He is smart enough and physical enough and nasty enough to go line up on an offensive tackle and play true linebacker, but is also athletic enough and skilled enough to line up on a No. 2 wide receiver," linebackers coach Joe Barry said.
"You usually don't have that flexibility with a kid who is a linebacker, but we do with him."
The Lakewood (Calif.) product showed off his versatility during Monday's scrimmage at the Coliseum, intercepting passes on back-to-back plays and returning one for a 25-yard touchdown.
While the plan is to put Bailey where he can operate in space, he has emerged as more than just a specialty player, allowing the defense to alternate between its traditional 4-3 alignment and nickel defense on a play-by-play basis, which will be crucial with the proliferation of spread offenses the likes of Oregon, Notre Dame and Arizona State feature.
Coaches first realized Bailey would be a major contributor in the spring, even after struggling with the transition initially.
"Linebacker is a different world than safety and I think he was feeling his way through spring practice, probably the first half," Barry said. "But he really started to come on in spring practice, making plays, especially out in space."
"I just feed off what they are doing," Bailey said. "When we are out there together, they tell me to do something, I do it. I don't ask no questions. I don't think twice about it because they got that veteran experience."
The biggest adjustment is the physical aspect of playing the run. That means taking on guards and tackles that could outweigh Bailey by over 100 pounds.
"The position he is playing, he won't be in that predicament a lot of times," Barry said. "He's right around 210 pounds, so he is big enough to survive because he understands leverage, understands pad level. He is tough and physical. When he does have to get in there and mix it up, he can."
Bailey admitted he was shocked the first time he had to play in the trenches.
"My first day in the box, man, I never seen anything move so fast. That's something I have to get used to as well," he said.
And while Bailey's move was intended to lessen a logjam in the defensive backfield, the competition to find the starting strong safety remains wide open, with four contenders in redshirt senior Marshall Jones, redshirt junior Drew McAllister, junior Jawanza Starling and sophomore Demetrius Wright.
For his part, Bailey has no regrets.
"The amount of playing time and reps I'm getting right now, I like where I'm at," he said.
Injuries Piling Up
For the first time this fall, the Trojans are dealing with a significant number of injuries, though most are relatively minor.
Linebacker Chris Galippo (right shoulder) had X-rays taken, but results were not immediately known. USC head coach Lane Kiffin said that was usually a good sign.
Wide receiver Brice Butler, singled out by Kiffin as one of the top performers in camp, sprained his right ankle Wednesday morning. X-rays did not reveal any significant injury.
Offensive lineman Aundrey Walker (hip) was also injured in the morning. The massive freshman did not participate in the evening session.
The news was not as positive for redshirt freshman offensive lineman Giovanni DiPoalo, who needs shoulder surgery and will miss the season, Kiffin said.
McNeal Academically Eligible
Redshirt junior running back Curtis McNeal has received the necessary grades in summer school and will be eligible for the upcoming season.
"That's great for us and more importantly for him. He has battled through a lot, struggled through a lot of things that hardly any of us would experience in our live and for him to battle through what he has gone through and make it is pretty special," Kiffin said.
McNeal missed the 2010 campaign because of academics.
Kiffin did not yet know if sophomore wide receiver Markeith Ambles would be academically eligible after saying earlier that he would not practice until he was.
"We don't want to bring him out here, have him be ineligible and waste those reps," Kiffin said.
-Freshman Andre Heidari will be the starting placekicker this season, Kiffin announced.
-20 Marines from Camp Pendleton that are between deployments to Afghanistan attended practice Wednesday evening.