When coach Steve Sarkisian gave early enrollee freshman Cameron Smith the jersey number 35, the inside linebacker from Granite Bay, California, had no idea there was a tradition at USC associated with the number.
Most observers of Trojans football can tell you all about the legacy associated with the number 55 -- a tradition of linebacker play that includes Junior Seau, Willie McGinest and Chris Claiborne -- but the significance of No. 35 is not as well known.
From the late 1970s to the early 1990s there was a stretch of USC inside linebackers that were similar in style and intensity, a group of tough, hard-nosed players who approached the position the same way. It began with Riki Gray (now Ellison) from 1978-82, and continued with Rex Moore (1984-87), Scott Ross (1987-90) and Jeff Kopp (1991-94).
There was no mystery as to why Ellison chose to wear the number, it was the jersey number he had worn while leading Amphitheatre (Arizona) to a state title, and he wanted to continue wearing it at USC. He ended up being the first true freshman to start at USC on defense for an opening game during the 1978 national title run and also played on two Rose Bowl winning teams for the Trojans before winning three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. His son, Rhett, was a captain for the 2012 Trojans, and currently plays for the Minnesota Vikings.
"That number that was carried through the great linebackers after me was about toughness, intensity, heart, love for USC and leadership by action and example," Ellison said.
Moore was as intense as any of them on the field, and is known as a player for throwing mud in the facemask of Notre Dame running back Allen Pinkett. Moore's son, Grant, is now a walk-on linebacker at USC. Ross was an All-American and USC team MVP in 1990, who passed away last September at the age of 45. Kopp was well aware of the legacy that was eventually passed along to him.
"I had watched Scott Ross when I was in high school and being recruited, he was a tough, smart football player," Kopp said. "When I got to USC he took me under his wing, let's call it the 35 mentoring program, and he told me about the tradition of the number. Practice hard, train hard, study film hard, simply outwork your teammates and opponents. When he graduated he said 'the number is yours.' That was a big deal to me."
So when Sarkisian -- who grew up in nearby Torrance in the 1980s and was a freshman baseball player at USC in 1992 -- saw the traits that Smith brought to the table as a linebacker (including this physical hit during the recent spring game) it reminded him of what he had seen at USC in those years.
"I sat Cameron down and explained to him that when I was growing up, the No. 35 meant a lot here," Sarkisian said. "I kind of like that we were able to put him in that number. For him to be in it, and playing well, is good for the tradition of the number."
That connection has not gone unnoticed by those who wore the number in those bygone years and set the standard, and you can be sure they will be watching as Smith looks to live up the legacy of the jersey number he now wears.
"It is truly heartwarming and awesome for coach Sark to bring it back, not just to the position but to the player that will represent the core value of that number playing inside middle linebacker for USC," Ellison said.