The thing that initially comes to mind for USC's linebacking corps is that this group isn't just full on depth, it's also full on youth.
The starting trio last season were all freshmen. Bailey and Hayes Pullard on the outside burned their redshirt year in 2010 while middle linebacker Dawson stepped up to his role as a true rookie.
While most of us know these players' ages and respective tackle totals, what we don't know is what they can become. Although their statistics and performances last season can give us a clue, this fall will tell us more.
We don't have to wait until the season opener to find something out now, however. In the past two months of spring football, we saw Tony Burnett, Scott Starr and Anthony Sarao -- what appears to be the two-deep at linebacker -- maintain a solid level of play behind their starters.
Before the spring season, Starr was slated as an outside linebacker. Burnett had just moved to safety from cornerback and Sarao had redshirted in 2011.
Since he enrolled Sarao has always been physically impressive. Still, the New Jersey native needed to digest the playbook and get more confident in the system. After this spring it's clear he has done both. The Trojans were loaded at the position with other players like Chris Galippo, Shane Horton and Tre Madden last year that Sarao used the time to focus on his body, learn the system and get adjusted to California and college life. Now, he's playing fast and hitting hard. In individual knife tackling drills, he's always one of the most impressive players and he's been adjusting to Scottie Hazelton's teaching well.
Inside, you wouldn't believe that Starr has only been in school a few months. At least to the ordinary eye, it seems as though he's not making too many mistakes and he's picking things up well. He's a player with good instinct and a will to get better. He has the size coaches want already, so now he just needs to use the time advantage he has as a spring enrollee to eat up that playbook and learn his assignments perfectly.
Aside from cornerback Brian Baucham, Burnett has been the biggest surprise for me this spring. Burnett's size is that of a linebacker. Sure he'll have to adjust his footwork and work in less space, but the challenge is one he can handle and one that will give him an increased opportunity to play more. He understands coverages better than he ever has, so the move was a great one by the coaching staff. He even recorded a pick in his second practice at the position! He is an exciting player to keep an eye on in training camp.
But that No. 2 strongside spot is not fully won by Burnett yet. He'll face some stiff competition from Marquis Simmons, who has game experience as a linebacker. If Simmons can remain healthy, these two will battle it out for that spot in the fall.
Interestingly, the end-of-spring depth chart listed incoming enrollee Jabari Ruffin at middle linebacker. While that could change and it's likely the young backer will redshirt with the Trojans' current depth, it was an unexpected move by those who follow recruiting. Ruffin was recruited as an outside linebacker up until signing day.
The players will need to maintain full health to continue performing at a high level but as long as they do, this is a hungry group and one that can definitely play well together in the fall.