Surprise developments at USC's linebacker position

If we've learned anything this spring about the USC linebacker group, it's that there should be plenty of options available by the time the season rolls around.

There is certainly the known quantity in Su'a Cravens at the strongside linebacker spot, a physical talent who is still pretty new to the position. Cravens was originally a safety who was moved to the hybrid OLB-S role at the start of last season and had to adjust on the fly. The results were good but linebacker coach Peter Sirmon thinks they can be even better now that Su'a will have a full offseason to master the details of the position.

"He's grown impressively this spring," Sirmon said. "Instinctually he's always had it but now it's a matter of learning the technique. I think you're going to see that result in a whole new consistent level of production."

The surprise developments this spring have come at the other linebacker positions, and even at the back-up spot to Cravens with a nice showing from Quinton Powell.

The biggest surprise has been the performance of Mike linebacker Lamar Dawson, a fifth-year senior who missed last season because of a knee injury and has been considered somewhat of an underachiever to this point in his USC career, despite the fact Lamar has started 20 games. Some of the perception has to do with the expectations that come with the No. 55, but there have also been position changes and other issues that resulted in tempered hopes of what Dawson would do entering his final spring.

This spring has seen a different Lamar Dawson, a player with a mature 235-pound frame, a new outlook and a knack for making plays, including a pair of "challenge"-ending plays at the end of two spring practices to win the day for the defense. Barring any major surprises, Dawson will head into fall camp as the strong favorite to be the starter for the season opener.

"Lamar has been very active this spring," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "He's continuing to show up on film and that's been great to see."

There has also been a lot of praise for early enrollee freshman Cameron Smith, who has been a quick study as the primary backup to Dawson, and Smith definitely looks capable of contributing in his first year.

"Cameron is a conscientious guy," Sirmon said. "He takes a lot of pride in getting into his playbook, taking notes, and not being a repetitive mistake guy. That's good for a young guy. And he's pretty physical."

At the Will linebacker spot, Anthony Sarao returns as the starter, but he has missed spring with the foot injury so that left the door open for a lot of reps to be taken in his place. Michael Hutchings was given first shot with the starting unit but he wasn't able to take advantage, and last week we saw Olajuwon Tucker move into his spot with the first unit. Tucker, who goes by the nickname Budda, saw limited action last season as a true freshman but he's been a steady presence as one of the bigger surprises of spring.

"Budda continues to impress," Sirmon said. "He's a sharp kid who has made a huge step up this spring. He can learn multiple positions (rush end) and that gives him even more opportunity."

And don't forget the fall camp arrival of a trio of highly-ranked linebackers in John Houston Jr., Osa Masina and Porter Gustin. The result should be a pretty diverse group of players at the position, and one that will help transition into a slightly different look at the position.

"It's going to be a little bigger linebacker group than we've seen lately," Sarkisian said. "That's what we want."