However, even without being able to lay his helmet into anyone, freshman inside linebacker Cameron Smith is still putting a smile on linebacker coach Peter Sirmon’s face.
“He’s exactly who I thought he was going to be,” said Sirmon. “And that’s a good thing. That’s what I want.
“He’s an instinctual player who plays heavy. In 3-4 spacing, that’s what we need to win. We don’t necessarily need to get big, but I say big because physicality usually requires size. We need length and that girth to go out and top end ball carries.
“Some guys you get side profile tackles with and the ball carrier still falls forward for two or three yards. I need a big enough guy that I can stop the ball on contact. You get those situations when it should be 2nd and 8, but it’s 2nd and 5 because the running back was able to lean forward for those extra yards.
“You do that 10, 15 snaps a game and it’s hard to keep your defense in a good down and distance. So I’m very happy with what he is as a player. He brings in what I want to do inside at the linebacker position.”
At 6-foot-2, 245-pounds, playing without full pads is Smith playing toward his weaknesses.
“His limitations are going to be consistently making tackles in space,” said Sirmon. “We could be watching films and I’d say the same thing with him standing right next to me.
“That’s not a knock. You watch the NFL Draft, and there are dents on the fender with everyone. This league likes to spread you out and we’ve built this defense to limit the exposure of some of those guys. We play our guys to their strengths.
“I think with Cam’s instincts, his demeanor and seriousness toward football, he’s going to be a fine football player for us.”
Smith and Sirmon became very close throughout the recruiting process, which has carried over on the field this spring.
As a midyear entrant, Smith is getting months of meetings, film and practice reps ahead of the other freshmen in the 2015 class. But football isn’t where the advantage of enrolling early ends.
“The biggest thing is him learning to be a college student,” said Sirmon. “These kids are just trying to get their life in order. He pulled out his iPhone today and had his whole schedule and itinerary on it.
“He knows when his tutors are, when he has class and when he has time to visit with me. That was pretty cool. He’s done a nice job transitioning. I also think our relationship during recruiting helps.
“I think there’s a lot of trust between us. That’s goes beyond even just football. He knows I’m not going to let him get lost and homesick during this initial stretch.”
Smith has received second and third team reps this week, but is being fed increments of the play book one day at a time.
“We tried to get the freshmen in, but I try not to coach everything at once and overwhelm them,” said Sirmon. “In my experience, we started two true freshmen at linebacker when I was at Tennessee and then had Shaq Thompson up at Washington, who hadn’t played a lick of linebacker before we moved him.
“You fill the plate to what they can handle. Guys who are playing early are really talented. It’s my job not to screw it up. You see guys early on play well, and the longer camp goes and the more you give them, they strip looking as could as they could.
“If the young guys show progress, you give them a little more, but you can’t get overzealous and think they’re seniors by weighing them down with too much of the playbook.”
New to him, but not new to USC
Sophomore cornerback Jonathan Lockett isn’t a newcomer to USC, but he is a newcomer to the safety position. Thursday, Lockett played both safety and cornerback.
The move is emblematic of Keith Heyward’s philosophy of fielding defensive backs that can cover above all else. Lockett, 5-foot-11, 175-pounds, is a far cry physically from the days of USC safeties Taylor Mays and Darnell Bing.
“It’s our league, right,” said the Trojans’ secondary coach. “We see a lot of 11 personnel with three wide receivers, so we need guys who can cover with the ability to tackle.
“That’s just our league. Oregon State is going away from the pro-style offense, even though we don’t play the for two years. But they’re going spread, so the only team you will see use some two-back runs is Stanford.”
Heyward was pleased with Lockett’s performance at safety Thursday because of what he said and much as for what he did.
“He did a great job,” said Heyward. “For somebody who has never lined up at it before, he did really good.
“It’s hard because you have to be really disciplined with your eyes at safety and make the calls, which he has done. I didn’t think he was going to be vocal enough. But I set that standard and told him, ‘If you’re going to play safety, you are the quarterback of the defense.
“‘Your No. 1 job is to communicate what we’e playing to the corners and the linebackers. If that doesn’t happen, it’s your fault and you can’t play safety.”
Lockett’s attitude toward playing safety also helped in the transition.
“It doesn’t matter to me if it’s another way to get on the field,” said Lockett. “There’s a lot to learn at safety, so I’m going to be dedicated and learn the plays.
“The big thing at safety is that you have to talk. At cornerback, you don’t really have to say anything, You listen for the call and just play. At safety you have to make those calls, and if you make the wrong call, the whole defense is off.
“It’s also different being way off the ball, but I kind of like it. At corner, you’re seven yards off or pressing.”
At Mater Dei High School, Lockett played safety for one game, but spend every other snap of his prep career at cornerback and wide receiver.
“I think I played great,” said Lockett. “I made the right calls and made a few plays. So far, I’m liking it. Our defense is made to cover guys. Small safeties, small corners, it doesn’t matter.
“We’ll come up on the run too, but our defense is made to cover guys in the open field.”
Lockett, although slight physically in comparison to some former USC safeties, is hardly a finesse defensive back. He demonstrated that Thursday when he put his shoulder into tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick without pads on.
“We have a thing in our DB room about improving part of our game,” said Lockett. “For me, it was getting off blocks and making tackles. Today, I went out and made sure I shed my blocks and made my tackles.”