An experiment gone right

There are experiments gone wrong, like Devon Kennard's one-year trial at middle linebacker, and there are experiments gone right.

The case of Dion Bailey is definitely one of the latter.

The redshirt freshman linebacker from nearby Lakewood who entered college as a safety has been nothing short of a revelation this season. Starting all four games at strongside linebacker, Bailey leads the USC Trojans in tackles with 26 and is tied for the team lead in sacks with two.

With just a half-year at the position under his belt, he's been the Trojans' top playmaker on the defensive side of the ball -- and maybe their top player.

"He's done a phenomenal job at the transition," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said this week. "He's played as well or better than anybody (on the defense), including Chris Galippo, a senior. It's great to see his approach to the game. He has great ball skills, too, so hopefully that'll show up soon."

What has showed up: a nose for the ball and a keen tackling sense. You wouldn't think it, because of his defensive-back background, but Bailey might be the best-tackling defender on the team.

There's a method of tackling that college and professional coaches often find themselves teaching their athletes who never learned the proper way growing up, but Bailey already knows all that. His tackling is consistently of the 'form' variety: i.e., he doesn't lead with his helmet, letting his shoulders find the ballcarrier and his hands fight for the ball.

"I come up to a tackle with a mindset of, 'I'm not gonna miss and I'm gonna wrap his legs up and I'm going to take him down,' " Bailey said. "Other people come with the mindset of trying to knock his helmet off and not really focused on the tackle, and that's how you miss tackles sometimes.

"I try not to do too much."

He doesn't say it so succinctly, but that's exactly why Kiffin is so pleased with the play of Bailey and his fellow redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard, who has started all four games at weakside linebacker. Unlike many of the Trojans' other first-time starters, Bailey doesn't take too many risks and doesn't make too many mistakes.

He's a freshman, but he doesn't play like one.

"I would agree with that," said his position coach, Joe Barry. "I think he's playing at a good level. Dion's a good player. He's got instincts. He's got great football awareness, great football feel. He's tough -- he's not the biggest guy in the world but he makes up for it because he's tough."

Barry was the man who spearheaded Bailey's move to linebacker along with Kiffin. But the interesting thing about the position switch is that nobody really expected it to pay off this quickly and this much.

Talking about the move in February, Bailey indicated that he was still going to play some safety and was looking at it as more of a temporary thing than anything else. There was even talk about playing as a nickel linebacker exclusively and things like that.

Now, all that's out the window. Bailey's a linebacker all the way.

"When they first made the move, I wasn't too fond of it, because I wanted to play safety and I thought I was the best safety in the world," Bailey said this week. "But Coach Barry and Coach Kiffin, they know best. They've been around a lot longer than me. So I accepted the challenge -- I was a little light, put on a couple pounds -- and the move's worked out in the end."

It's not quite the end. USC is still just one-quarter of the way through its 2011 season, and there will likely be a rookie wall of sorts that Bailey hits at some point this year. But even as the Trojans have struggled on defense thus far, Bailey's play has been a consistent bright spot.

"He's like a little gnat," Barry said. "He's always all over the place. He's doing a good job.

"It's early in the season and it's early in his career, but I continue to expect good things from him."