Driven to be the best

LOS ANGELES -- Every season there are certain players who take a big step forward in their development to the point that it is noticed by teammates and coaches alike.

This season for the Trojans, one of those players is sophomore weakside linebacker Hayes Pullard.

It's not like Pullard was unaccomplished last season after tying for the team lead in tackles (81) with fellow linebacker Dion Bailey. Pullard was named a Freshman All-American for his efforts and is on the Lombardi Award watch list heading into the 2012 season.

The first thing one notices in terms of his growth this fall is how much he has bulked up. Pullard played last season at 220 pounds but came into camp at 235 this year and doesn't appear to have lost any of his speed.

"He's a load," said USC linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton. "The strength staff really did a great job with him. He attacked the summertime workouts and came into camp in great shape.

"He sets the tone in practice, too. He's what we call a rabbit, the first guy up in every drill. He's become a leader on the defense. He doesn't talk much, but when he says something, it means a lot."

Pullard has a natural presence on the field that other players respond to, and he has learned how to tap into that leadership role by watching other veterans of the defense.

"I've kind of grown more and more," Pullard said. "I still look to guys like T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey as leaders. They have the perspective of being a peak performer in all phases of their game, so I'm trying to grow and learn from that."

Pullard is also showcasing his versatility by stepping into the middle linebacker spot during the first week of practice, as starter Lamar Dawson has missed time due to injury. It's not an entirely new position for Pullard, who played middle at Los Angeles Crenshaw, helping lead his team to a CIF-Los Angeles City Section title.

"There are some similarities between the two spots, but they are different," Hazelton said. "Hayes has been in the system on the weakside for a year now, so he already knows that spot. That makes it easier to learn another spot."

Pullard takes the position switch in stride, while USC head coach Lane Kiffin said it is good to get Pullard reps at the spot in case Dawson gets injured. For Pullard, it's all about competing and maintaining the USC linebacker tradition he watched in recent years with several current NFL stars.

"We all try to learn each other's positions," Pullard said. "Me, Dion and Lamar, we compete with each other every day. The backups too. We check to see who has the fewest loafs, the fewest mistakes. Even in the scrimmages, we're always checking everything, because we all want to be the best linebacker. We're just trying to keep up that bond of LB-U like when Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing were here."

That competitive spirit was definitely evident during the 2011 season when Pullard and Bailey went back and forth comparing stats and looking for a leg up on the other guy.

"At the beginning of the season I was leading, so I was like 'yeah, I'm the leading tackler'," Pullard said. "Then T.J. passed us both up, and then Dion passed everybody by for a while, and he was always saying, 'I'm going to be a better tackler than you.' We were always going at it in the locker room. We just kept fighting and competing, and we ended up tying, so I kind of liked that."

Pullard knows that the stats comparisons are all in fun, but it will come down to producing as a unit if the defense is to help the Trojans meet expectations in the upcoming season.

"We're throwing our stats from last year out the window," Pullard said. "I'm working on my flexibility, trying to get my speed down, trying to tackle better in the open field. People say I tackled great last year, but I think I can get better. We just want to be peak performers who play fast, play smart and play together. If we do that, we'll be a successful defense."