There's really no debate here. The one position on this USC team that has it all -- numbers, experience, size, speed, young talent ready to play, interchangeability, you name it, the 17 linebackers, inside and outside, have it.
Phil Steele says they're the nation's best. And if you ask them about it, USC's linebackers do not disagree.
There are six with starting experience. One, Lamar Dawson (6-1, 230), the Kentucky kid whose No. 55 was missing last year rehabbing knee sugery, has three years of it. And could be the natural person to step into the Hayes Pullard leadership spot.
Su'a Cravens has started his two years here and now that he's settled into his spot on the outside, the 225-pound junior with great anticipation and ball skills, is in the running for top defender in the nation after leading USC with 17 tackles for loss and three interceptions.
Steve Sarkisian says of the nominee for the Butkus, Lombardi, Bednarik, Nagurski and Lott awards: "Su’a is the model for that type of player and I believe he will continue to show this year that he is one of the nation’s top defensive players."
Anthony Sarao (6-0, 235) is up 15 pounds this season and going for a third year of starting on the inside with a team-high tackle total for returnees of 74 with two interceptions. And this season, the senior from New Jersey should be big enough to handle the pounding.
Three other former starters headline the linebacker spot. Inside, there's the technically sound De La Salle product Michael Hutchings (6-1, 225), who made 20 tackles a year ago.
On the outside, competing to replace J.R. Tavai and his poductive pass rush are juniors Scott Felix (6-2, 240), who led USC with two fumble recoveries last fall, and a bigger, stronger Jabari Ruffin (6-3, 245), after rehabbing from knee surgery the last 11 months.
Two outside guys who have shown up on special teams are open-field tackler Quinton Powell (6-2, 210), with his 13 tackles, and sophomore Uchenna Nwosu (6-3, 210), another special team guy after missing the spring. But showing up in the spring on the outside were redshirt freshmen Don Hill (6-2, 245), slowed in the fall by rehab from a high school achilles injury, and walkon Grant Moore (6-0, 220).
Two returning walkons -- sophomore Joel Foy (6-1, 225) and redshirt freshman Reuben Peters (6-0, 225) -- provide inside depth to an already deep position where sophomore Olajuwon Tucker (6-3, 235) stepped up when he got his spring shot.
But that's just 13. There are also four exciting freshmen, all of whom will be competing to get on the field and who excited anyone who made it to the summer workouts. Is it too soon to expect something big out of them? Or is there another Su'a or an Adoree here? We'll see.
Although you could have seen one of them, Cameron Smith (6-3, 245), last spring when he settled in like a veteran behind Dawson in the middle with a range and an ability to play the pass no one had expected.
The other three spread out over the rest of the linebacker slots. Osa Masina (6-4, 245) is fitting in on the weakside inside where the rangy, athletic Utah product does not look like a freshman. He also has the athleticism to play elsewhere if needed.
Porter Gustin (6-5, 250) probably should not have the acceleration he has at the rush end spot but all you have to do is watch the multisport star run and you know he can get it into gear -- and an opponent's backfield. Can he play right away? We'll see fairly soon.
Finally, at the strong OLB slot is Serra grad John Houston, an athletic 6-3, 220-pounder with both cover skills and the ability to hit.
SARK SAYS: “In our system, the outside linebacker needs to be a versatile player. This position is critical to our success on defense. We have a group of players who have the ability to defend the run, rush the passer and drop in coverage while playing with high intelligence." And for the inside guys:"We lost a real leader in Hayes, but Anthony is a veteran who can lead this unit. It’s a position of good depth and talent. There will be a healthy competition to see who starts and who plays significant roles for us.”
Su'a Cravens, Jr.
Scott Felix, Jr.
Porter Gustin, In. Fr., OLB-TE
Don Hill, RFr.
John Houston Jr., In. Fr.
Grant Moore, RFr.
Uchenna Nwosu, So.
Quinton Powell, Jr.
Jabari Ruffin, Jr.
Lamar Dawson, Sr.
Joel Foy, So.
Michael Hutchings, Jr.
Osa Masina, In. Fr., ILB-TE
Reuben Peters, RFr.
Cameron Smith, Fr.
Anthony Sarao, Sr.
Olajuwon Tucker, So.
Seventh in a series of fall position previews for the 2015 Trojans. Next: The secondary.
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