Pullard and Bailey led the team in tackles, with 81 a piece. As freshmen. Dawson came in and started a little more than halfway through the season. As a true freshman.
Barring any major injury, these three are a lock for their jobs. Then I mulled over the two and three deep.
Tre Madden came in as a true freshman --even logging a start-- and improved each week. Redshirt sophomore Marquis Simmons was projected to start at strongside linebacker in 2011 before he was sidelined with a neck injury. And Service Team Player of the Year Anthony Sarao has the exact build of an elite linebacker.
All this and Joe Barry is still expecting recruit Jabari Ruffin to enroll in this fall and hopefully another linebacker, someone along the lines of Stanford commit Noor Davis, to come in the 2012 class as well.
Wasn't USC supposed to be limited by scholarship numbers or something?
Sure the Trojans will feel the sanctions' effect in some areas of recruiting. But their linebackers are not one of them.
What will be an interesting development is who will back up Lamar Dawson inside. Starr, Ruffin and Sarao are all projected outside. There is backup Will Andrew (former walk-on, granted a scholarship this season). I just don't see coaches giving him quality minutes over one of the younger players.
Barry, an equally respected coach as he is person (he seems like a normal person that just happens to coach football), has his hands full with a heck of a lot of talent and quite a puzzle to put together.
Because what Barry and the Trojans have now are about four players (Dawson, Andrew, Starr, Ruffin) who are of the former USC build: the 6-2+, 225+ pounds, á la Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing. The stronger, harder-hitting type. Note: this is a body comparison, ability is to be determined.
And then there are about three smaller, speedier players that are quicker tacklers and can cover more ground in Bailey, Madden and Pullard.
The depth at this position can allow USC to really mix it up.
Especially with a mid-year enrollee, like Starr, who hopes enrolling early will help him play early. If not for special teams getting him out on the field, I asked Starr if he was interested in playing Matthews "elephant" position, a defensive end/linebacker hybrid, perfected under Pete Carroll.
He is not.
Maybe that will change under Barry. Maybe one of the new recruits will play inside, or Sarao will move over.
Regardless of the changes made, there will be plenty for USC's coaching staff to figure out come this spring and next fall camp.
But more importantly, there is plenty of upside.