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April 1, 2013

Man in the middle in No. 10

The new 5-2/3-4 scheme that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has brought to USC isn't the only dramatic shift on that side of the ball. The D is also missing two critical team captains in safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey, both of whom returned to campus Wednesday for USC's Pro Day.

With a group absent established leaders, head coach Lane Kiffin was asked if anyone has taken to the role as defensive leader and perhaps future team captain.

"Hayes [Pullard] has definitely [stepped up as a leader]," Kiffin responded.

The redshirt junior linebacker is arguably the Trojans' top defender, as he assembled two very strong seasons playing the weak side in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme. This spring, Pullard has moved inside to the middle at the Mike as one of the two inside backers this spring.

Despite what would seem to be drastic differences, Pullard isn't being asked to do anything wildly different.

"Linebacker is a linebacker," Pullard, a Crenshaw alum, asserted. "You gotta be able to cover in space and be able to tackle in the box."

In his words, it's basically the same thing. But speaking up is an entirely different task. Since his move to middle linebacker, Pullard has become much more vocal according to Kiffin.

"Initially, he was not a vocal guy," Kiffin said. "He was a quiet kid coming in, very reserved - a hard-worker, but to himself. He's come out of his shell, and I think going to Mike has helped that, too."

The often clichéd "quarterback of the defense" has been just that for Pullard. Kiffin noted the change first during practices leading up to the Sun Bowl.

"I think he made a decision that this was going to be his defense, and he became more vocal, and you could see him taking over," Kiffin said. "He mentioned it one time: 'I'm already looking toward next year, and this is my defense. I need to take this thing over.' "

Leadership from the linebacking corps is welcome, especially with Dion Bailey out all spring. And when he does return, who knows if he'll be back in the fold there. He may be a hybrid linebacker/defensive back or safety. Lamar Dawson has begun to come on, looking the best he has in his two years here at the Will spot.

"I just think his leadership, his toughness [sticks out]," new linebacker coach Mike Ekeler said. "He wants to be a great player. He's very critical of himself, so if he makes a mistake, he doesn't like it - he wants to fix it. That's the mark of a great player. I'm excited about the prospects. He's gotta keep coming every day. He's not even close to reaching his potential.

"He's a very physical, physical player," Ekeler said. "But just like the whole group, we have to get better at playing with our face and hands and taking on blocks and releasing off blocks - it's a simple game. As a linebacker, you gotta' be efficient, defeat blocks and get paid."

Pullard is in for a busy spring, on and off the field. He wants to improve his footwork and pad leverage on the field, and he's taking above a full course load of 20 units in the classroom.

Hopefully, all that work will pay off when the real tests come under the lights at the Coliseum, not Howard Jones Field. and No. 10 is staring down the quarterback from his spot in the middle.

Will Robinson is a USC Communication major, senior sports editor at Neon Tommy and a writer for Conquest Chronicles and Ride With Silver. Contact him at wfrobins@usc.edu.




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