After concluding our series on the top 10 moments of the 2011 USC football season, we’ve started a new series on the Trojans’ top 10 performers this year. With one player per day Monday-Friday, the list will last until Friday, Dec. 23.
So far this week we've had T.J. McDonald at No. 10, Christian Tupou at No. 9, Curtis McNeal at No. 8 and Nick Perry at No. 7. Here's No. 6: linebacker Dion Bailey.
You can't over-credit Lane Kiffin and his staff for the foresight to move Bailey from safety to linebacker last offseason after he redshirted his freshman year. It was one of the smartest position changes in the country in 2011, and it had a gigantic effect on USC's overall success last season.
That said, even Kiffin and Co. didn't quite realize what they had on their hands with Bailey. The 6-foot, 200-pounder was incredibly instinctual as USC's strongside linebacker, starting 11 of 12 games and missing the other only after a concussion.
He led the team in solo tackles and tied with Hayes Pullard in total tackles, adding two sacks, two interceptions and a fumble forced. He rarely missed open-field tackles and showed a rare ability to size up to bigger players to bring them down.
If he could add 10 or 15 points to his frame and keep the same speed, Bailey's a future first-rounder. If he stays the same, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him move back to safety -- in the NFL, certainly, but even potentially at USC next year. If T.J. McDonald ends up leaving early this offseason, the Trojans will need someone to fill his spot,
Bailey could be that guy.
Why do we say Kiffin and the USC coaching staff didn't know how good Bailey could be right away? Pay attention to how Kiffin approached the move early on. In spring practice, the Trojans' coach referred to the Lakewood as a sort of nickel-backer, a guy who would come in on third-down situations as a hybrid defensive back/linebacker and allow USC to match up better against Pac-12 offenses.
They didn't know right away he'd be able to handle the job full-time. And it didn't really seem like Bailey would be the guy until the Trojans' first scrimmage at the Coliseum in fall camp, when he picked off back-to-back passes from quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler, taking one back for a pick six.
That got him going. Four weeks later, he got the season-opening start against Minnesota, and, a month after that, he broke out in a big way against Cal with two interceptions and a forced fumble in a road win over the Bears.
Perhaps the most interesting, most telling thing about Bailey: He doesn't get complacent. The 19-year-old said over and over this season that he wasn't happy with his performance, believing he could play a lot better than he had.
It looks like he will later.
Check back Saturday for performer No. 5,