Fall preview: Inside linebackers

Leading up to fall camp, Scout's SCPlaybook will take a look at each position group for the Trojans... Next up, the inside linebackers...

Inside linebackers:
USC returns all of its inside linebacker talent to its 2014 team and the Trojans will even get a player back from a season ending injury.

Hayes Pullard, Anthony Sarao, and Lamar Dawson should prove to be one of the strongest linebacker groups in the Pac-12 conference, a key component of what could be one of the top front-sevens in college football.

“When I talk about our defensive front 7 being one of the strengths of the team, a lot of that is because of our linebackers,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian. “The inside backers are solid, talented players who have lots of versatility. They have a great leader and mentor in Hayes.”

Pullard, a redshirt senior, opted to return to USC for his final season of eligibility, unlike five of his underclassmen teammates who decided to declare for the draft. Three of whom went undrafted.

The Trojan linebackers will be coached this season by first year USC coach Peter Sirmon.

Key Returners: Hayes Pullard (RS Sr.), Anthony Sarao (RS Jr.), Lamar Dawson (Sr.)
Returners: Michael Hutchings (Soph.)
Newcomers: Olajuwon Tucker (Fr.), Uchenna Nwosu (Fr.)

2013 Review: Hayes Pullard started for his third straight season as an inside linebacker while Lamar Dawson won the weakside linebacker roll out of fall camp.

Pullard led the Trojans in tackles in 2013, making 94 tackles including 5.5 for a loss. He intercepted one pass and deflected five others.

Dawson was off to a promising start in 2013 after a strong spring 2012 showing. He made 35 tackles in his first seven games of the season before suffering a left-knee injury in practice when the Trojans were preparing for game No. 8 against Utah.

After serving in a backup role to start the year, redshirt sophomore Anthony Sarao took over in Dawson’s absence. He shined three games in particular, with nine tackles in his first season start against Utah. Sarao made a season-high 12 tackles against Stanford, and eight against UCLA.

After appearing in all 14 games, starting in seven, he finished the season with 44 tackles, a deflection, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

2014 Outlook: Pullard will start for his fourth straight season in Cardinal and Gold. The middle linebacker has been a key piece to the Trojans defense, leading the team in tackles two of the last three seasons.

The redshirt senior stepped up as a leader in 2013 and that quality continues in Pullard. He was vocal during the Trojans 15 spring practices and even moreso during the 15 player-run practices over the summer. He appears stronger than ever and will undoubtedly be a major playermaker on USC’s D in 2014.

Listed on the preseason depth chart next to Pullard at weakside linebacker is Anthony Sarao. Sarao will battle Lamar Dawson to retain the starting position he came upon in 2013 after Dawson went down with his season ending injury.

A redshirt junior, Sarao is coming into the 2014 season after gaining about ten pounds of new muscle – mostly in his upper body – since new strength coach Ivan Lewis has taken over.

Sarao will be challenged by Dawson, who returns from his season ending injury suffered during practice. If Dawson is able to pickup where he left off pre-injury, keep an eye on the weakside linebacker battle. It should be a good one.

Not only will the Sarao – Dawson battle be an interesting one to watch, but keep an eye on the development of Michael Hutchings.

The sophomore played in all 14 games in 2013, mainly on special teams. Throughout spring practices he mostly took reps with the second team defense. He suffered a dislocated elbow toward the end of spring ball.

Hutchings' progression this season could play a crucial role when the 2015 season roles around and the Trojans lose Pullard and Dawson.

True freshmen Olajuwon Tucker and Uchenna Nwosu participated but were not standouts at the Trojans summer player-run practices. Their roles and development through fall camp will also be a storyline to closely monitor.

Other position previews:
Quarterbacks
Offensive line
Receivers
Tailbacks
Tight ends
Defensive line
Cornerbacks
Safeties

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