Under the lights at the Coliseum for the first time this fall, USC redshirt freshman linebacker Dion Bailey seized on the opportunity and seized on a tipped pass from quarterback Matt Barkley for his first interception of the camp season and the first turnover of the three-hour scrimmage Monday.
Then, on the next play, with freshman Cody Kessler and the second-string offense in for Barkley and the first-stringers, Bailey jumped on a telegraphed short throw intended for Brandon Carswell and returned it 25 yards for a pick six.
The 19-year-old converted safety from nearby Lakewood High was the certifiable star of the scrimmage, as Trojans coach Lane Kiffin spotlighted him afterward in his opening statement to the media.
“I was very pleased with the way I played today,” Bailey said on the field at the Coliseum after the scrimmage. “But it’s just practice. I’m not gonna get too excited about things I’m doing in practice.
“I should be doing things like this in practice every day.”
Listed at 6-0, 200 pounds, Bailey was moved to outside linebacker before spring practice this offseason in order to provide a hybrid look of sorts in the USC defense for all the three- and four-receiver sets the Trojans expect to face in 2011.
“I feel like I [fit in there well], especially in the conference we play in, the Pac-12,” Bailey said. “There’s a lot of spread teams and I’ll be able to give that feel of a heavier nickel back, so I can play against the pass and support the run game too.”
His first pick Monday appeared to be mostly a case of being in the right place at the right time. Defensive end Nick Perry tipped the Barkley toss and Bailey jumped right on it, getting tackled almost as soon as he corralled the ball. The second showed his instincts as a ball-hawking linebacker.
Kessler, a true freshman from Bakersfield competing with Jesse Scroggins and Max Wittek for the backup quarterback spot, had thrown just one incompletion in nine attempts until that point, clearly having a good day. But he hiccupped a bit when he did only a cursory look off of his other reads and chose to deliver the ball to Carswell on the left side, maybe five yards past the line of scrimmage.
Bailey had a bead on it the whole way and jumped the pass before it ever got to Carswell, easily running it back 25 yards to the end zone without being touched.
“I saw a bubble and I just jumped it, feeling like I could make a play on it,” Bailey said. “And I was able to catch it, keep my balance and run it in for the score.”
Big-play turnovers like those were sorely missing from the Trojan defense last season, for a variety of reasons, and it sorely hurt them when they fell behind in games, because it was almost like the offense had to try to complete the comeback on its own at times. Part of that, the coaches say, was because the defense as a whole was adjusting to the new perspective of Lane and Monte Kiffin’s defense. Part of that was also understood to be because players in place at certain positions were more tackle-oriented than focused on producing turnovers.
“He made the move look pretty good today, as far as moving him down to linebacker to get a more athletic guy there to help in the pass game,” Kiffin said.
Putting guys like Bailey in the first-string defense would be a big step in the opposite direction, as he showed Monday.