“It hasn’t touched me yet,” Pullard said with a smile after Saturday morning’s practice. “I’m going to keep feeling good like I’m a sophomore.”
Pullard said he is pushing off the realization as long as possible. But he’s looking forward to the National University Holiday Bowl battle with Nebraska.
“Oh it’s going to be a fun matchup. Two high-powered offenses and defenses — two prestigious schools. I would say it’s a rivalry without being a rivalry.”
Nebraska has several weapons to test the Trojans. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong was second in the Big Ten in total offense and averaged 15.2 yards per completion this season — third best in the country. And the Huskers have a big special teams threat in punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El. He took three punts back for touchdowns and was third in the country with a 17.8 punt return average.
But Nebraska’s bread and butter starts in the backfield with running back Ameer Abdullah, who is fifth in the country averaging 166.9 all-purpose yards per game. His 1,523 yards rushing was No. 11 in the country and he ran for 6.43 yards per carry.
“They’re going to try to run the ball We’re going to try to run the ball,” Pullard said. “It’s just going to be a fun game.”
Stopping that attack starts with Pullard in the middle of the defense. With a 16-tackle lead on Leonard Williams, Pullard is likely to finish as the Trojans’ leading tackler for the third time. He will become the first USC player to do so since Dennis Johnson in the late 1970s.
“He’s a guy that’s played a lot of football in a lot of different systems,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “A guy that understands what we’re doing, what the offense is trying to do and can get himself in a position to be a step ahead in terms of what the run is or the pass game. Being a good player, you have to be able to do that.”
Head coach Steve Sarkisian said the team will begin installing the game plan for Nebraska next week, but this week has been more like fall camp for USC with lots of younger players getting equal repetitions.
“It’s going really good. A lot of young guys are stepping up. They’re finally getting the reps to get ready for spring ball next year,” Pullard said. “It’s all across the board. I can’t even single no guys out.
“It’s just like wow I didn’t know they could do it. You see some of the freshmen on offense and some of the freshmen on defense. It’s just the competitive nature that these young guys have. They weren’t able to show it because we were getting ready for games. They were redshirting, so now this is the perfect time for them to show their true colors.”
Pullard will also have an opportunity to show his abilities next month. Earlier this week, the Crenshaw High product accepted an invitation to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl that will be played in Mobile, Ala. on January 25. He will become the 76th USC Trojan to play in the Senior Bowl since it began in 1950, but only the second since the 2010 season (T.J. McDonald).
“It’s an awesome deal,” Pullard said. “I’m happy and I’m just taking it one at a time. Just focusing on [the Holiday Bowl] and when that time comes, I’ll be ready.”
He will join the top senior players in the premiere college postseason showcase. Along with the game, which will be televised on NFL Network, the players will also get a chance to prove their skills during a full week of practice in front of NFL scouts and front office personnel.
“I mean it can make or break you. You have great competition across America,” Pullard said. “You just have to go out there and not play to the level of competition, but play higher. This is a great opportunity to get better.”
Pullard said he’s never been to the South except for a stopover in Florida to change planes on the way to Haiti when he and 15 teammates spent five days building homes for those still affected by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated the island country. But he’s hoping to have a special visitor to help show him some Southern hospitality.
“I plan on calling Coach O [former USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron] once I get there to see if he can make a little drive and see if he can make that happen.”