Galippo the new man in the middle of USC's defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Chris Galippo confesses that he might not consistently blow up opposing ball carriers with the single-minded zeal of Rey Maualuga, the beast of a linebacker he's expected to replace in the middle of the USC defense this spring, but he's quick to point out that the Trojans aren't exactly replacing prime rib with chopped liver.

"I think we both have a good knack for finding the football," he said. "We both can make a play anywhere on the field, whether it's dropping back into our Tampa-2 look in the middle third, or whether it's making plays in the backfield. We're both sideline-to-sideline players."

Galippo, who ran a 4.72 40-yard dash this week at 240 pounds, seems completely at ease ascending to the spot that has produced NFL All-Pro Lofa Tatupu and Maualuga, a certain first-round draft pick this spring, over the past five seasons.

His pedigree is certainly the equal of Maualuga. Both were USA Today and Parade Magazine prep All-Americans. Both were generally considered the premier inside linebacker in their recruiting classes.

Galippo, some might remember, made 11 tackles in the 2006 U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio and became the first defensive player to earn game MVP honors as the West held the East to just 57 yards.

He recorded 381 career tackles at Servite High in Anaheim, Calif., where he also blocked 10 kicks.

Want some more numbers? Against one team, he recorded 15 tackles, four sacks and blocked two field goal attempts while producing 143 all-purpose yards as a receiver, running back and tight end.

So, no, chopped liver Galippo is not.

Of course, there is that pesky back.

Galippo immediately saw action as a true freshman in 2007, but his season ended with a herniated disk, which required surgery. Fortunately for him, he was allowed to reclaim a redshirt because he'd only played in the first three games.

But back injuries are tricky. His was still bothering Galippo well into the 2008 season, though he did end up with 12 tackles -- two for a loss -- and an interception.

Here's an early guess on what might become the affable Galippo's least favorite subject.

"I don't think it's an issue," he said. "I guess it is for the media. It's kind of the only thing that's hovering over my head right now. I know with the coaches that's their main concern -- can I stay healthy? I know that's a lot of people's concern. But I've never been healthier."

Galippo won't be the only new guy in the Trojans front seven when spring practices kick off on March 28. In fact, the only returning starter is nose tackle Christian Tupou.

Toss in Rocky Seto ascending to defensive coordinator after Nick Holt bolted for Washington, and this appears to be a spring of transition for the Trojans (though, notably, head coach Pete Carroll will continue to call the defensive plays).

On Galippo's linebacker flanks, juniors Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith will try to step in for All-American Brian Cushing and Rose Bowl MVP Kaluka Maiava.

"We've got a bunch of guys who are hungry and want to make a name for themselves," Galippo said. "It hasn't been like that at USC for a while. We've had a lot of superstars here over the last four or five years."

Then he adds, "I really don't see there being much of a drop off."

Really? Galippo is talking about replacing six players who all will be drafted, with Maualuga, Cushing, end Clay Matthews and tackle Fili Moala likely to go on the first day.

Lest you think, however, that Galippo is counting his sacks before they're made, know that he is completely aware of the USC system, which features constant competition for playing time.

Galippo's pedigree and potential don't matter any more. Now it's all about production.

"All it takes is a mistackle here or a missed assignment there, and someone else is getting subbed in," he said. "The coaches do a really good job of keeping the competition level high. We joke around sometimes that when you play ball at 'SC, you never really think you're a good football player until after the season. The coaches are so intense and are so good at holding such a high standard that you never really feel like you are producing enough until you look back after the season."

The good news for USC fans is Galippo seems perfectly comfortable that the standard he faces is Tatupu and Maualuga.