LOS ANGELES -- It's a frequent situation in athletics. A veteran player filled with experience and wisdom faces competition for his job from a younger guy with superior athletic skills.
For the USC coaches, that scenario was on display this past weekend, when true freshman middle linebacker Lamar Dawson got the start over senior Chris Galippo.
Dawson is an extremely talented player -- the fact that he was handed the fabled No. 55 as soon as he walked on campus gives you an idea of what the USC coaches thought of his potential. That number has been worn by USC stars such as Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers, so the expectations for Dawson are quite lofty.
Galippo was once a highly-ranked recruit too, a proud player who has battled through multiple back surgeries in a USC career that hasn't gone exactly as planned. Despite all of that, Galippo had fought back to reclaim his starting spot in the middle of the defense and was one of the emotional leaders of the unit.
Dawson showed in fall camp that he was worthy of the high expectations that were placed on him, but his lack of experience prevented him from even playing in the season opener against Minnesota, as the coaches needed Galippo and his experience on the field.
An ankle injury forced Dawson to miss three games (Arizona State, Arizona and California) but his natural skill was showing every time he was out on the field. Coaches and teammates -- including Galippo -- also praised his mental abilities to pick up the defense and learn from the older players.
Meanwhile, the USC defense had begun to play much better, starting with the Cal game, and Galippo was looking forward to maintaining his role as the starter during a stretch run that would include games against some of the top teams in the conference.
As the Trojans prepared to face Colorado last week, the coaches were faced with a tough decision: Stick with Galippo or move the rapidly improving Dawson into the starting lineup. The choice was made to go with the freshman.
"We talked to Chris before the week of practice, and we were up front with him," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "We told him he had two choices; he could either practice his tail off and prove us wrong or he could sit around and pout."
The timing of the game against Colorado -- whose offense had struggled mightily -- offered the coaches the chance to make the switch and judge Dawson in a lower-pressure situation to see if he could bring more than what they were getting from Galippo.
"I don't attribute any one thing to the reason for the change," USC linebacker coach Joe Barry said. "Lamar has just become more and more comfortable each week with the calls. He needs to stay at a high level now -- this isn't a move that is set in stone."
Dawson played well enough against the Buffaloes for Kiffin to proclaim him the starter against Washington on Saturday. He tallied four tackles in the game, but he also missed a couple of key tackles that led to big plays. It's all part of a learning process on the field that every player must go through, something Dawson understands.
"It meant a lot to start as a freshman," Dawson said. "I wasn't nervous. I look at it as an opportunity to learn and get better for the future. The speed of the game is probably the biggest adjustment. Everybody is so fast."
Galippo responded to his demotion with three tackles in the Colorado game and one pass deflection that was close to being an interception. The USC coaches have stressed that Galippo still will play a role on defense and also will have a more active part on special teams.
"Chris wasn't happy with the news that Lamar would be starting," Barry said. "We wouldn't be happy if he was happy about it. Life is about bumps in the road and how you deal with them, this doesn't impact Chris and his future at all if he doesn't let it happen."
For now, the future of the middle linebacker position at USC is in the hands of Lamar Dawson, and at least one former No. 55 thinks that future is looking pretty good.
"Whenever USC has a good No. 55, the Trojans have a good defense," said Claiborne, the 1998 Butkus Award winner. "When I look on the field and see that number, there are certain expectations of playing at a high level.
"Dawson prepares well, and that's half the battle; you have to take your craft seriously. Now it's a matter of getting used to the game. It took me a few games before I moved into the starting lineup, so I know what he's going through. This is his time to roll with it and take advantage of the opportunity."
The one certainty on Saturday, when the Washington Huskies come to the Coliseum, is that the Trojans will see a lot of big Huskies running back Chris Polk. A one-time USC verbal commitment from Redlands (Calif.) East Valley High School, the 5-foot-11, 222-pound junior has emerged as one of the most productive ball-carriers in the country and is a fixture in the Washington offense.
"Polk is a big, heavy guy," Dawson said. "He runs downhill. We need to gang tackle and bring him down."
Polk has rushed for 1,096 yards this season, the third straight season he has passed the 1,000-yard mark. He already has put together seven 100-yard rushing games this season, and his career rushing total of 3,657 yards puts him in second place on all-time Washington rushing list behind only Napoleon Kaufman (4,106).
"Polk is a very efficient running back," USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said. "He runs the ball hard, and he does a real good job taking care of the football. It's going to be a battle for us to contain him."
Sark singing Barkley praises
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was part of the USC staff when the Trojans began recruiting Matt Barkley out of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei High School, so the Huskies coach is certainly familiar with the Trojans signal-caller.
For that reason, the statements from Sarkisian on Monday might be a little more sincere than the normal pregame hyping of an opponent.
"If I'm an NFL coach right now, I'd pick Matt Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck," Sarkisian said in his weekly press conference. "I know him personally, so I have a little better insight into what he is and what he represents. I think he's fantastic."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.