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USC linebacker Lamar Dawson back in the fold

It was a long road, but after what seemed like an eternity of being relegated to the sideline, USC inside linebacker Lamar Dawson finally jumped back into action last Saturday. With the Trojans going down in defeat to Stanford 41-31, however, the fifth-year senior’s return party didn’t quite go as he envisioned.

Still, after having missed the last half of the 2013 campaign, as well as the entire 2014 season due to a knee injury, and then forced to sit out the first two games of this season due to a rib injury suffered in fall camp, Dawson still found plenty of reasons to be thankful.

“It felt good to get my feet wet,” said Dawson, who compiled six tackles against the Cardinal. “It had been over one-and-a-half years since I’d been in the Coliseum playing, so it just felt good getting back out there, and getting back in the flow of things.”

A once-highly touted prospect coming out of Danville (Ky.) Boyle County who was given the revered No. 55 jersey as a freshman, Dawson’s career at USC has been marked by its highs as well as its lows.

Coming out of the spring, however, Dawson, who has 20 career starts to his credit, arguably looked better than ever, and he appeared to have the middle linebacker position locked up. But with freshman Cameron Smith -- the current team leader with 25 stops -- having performed at a high level in his absence, he’s been filling a different role here in the early stages of his return.

Taking advantage of Dawson’s versatility and experience, the Trojans coaches have been lining him up at both middle and weakside linebacker as a reserve, including against the Cardinal last weekend.

“They’ve got me bouncing back and forth right now,” said Dawson, who has a total of 143 career tackles. “As a veteran guy, I know the defense really well. I know both positions, and it just allows me to help my teammates, and to help the team as a whole.”

And while fighting for a starting job is still part of the plan, Dawson says that after having been away for so long, he’s just happy to be making an impact again.

“My goal is just to help the team any way possible,” said the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Dawson. “If I’m coming off the bench, subbing in at both positions, and still getting the same number of reps, I’m good. I mean, obviously, I just need to keep working on myself, and the coaches will play the best players.”

Regardless of who is playing, Dawson knows that in order for the Trojans to find success throughout the remainder of the season, the defense is going to need to come up with a stronger showing than they did against Stanford.

The Trojans struggled to slow the Cardinal rushing attack as well as quarterback Kevin Hogan, who completed 18 of 23 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns, while also picking up large chunks of yardage on the ground at key moments.

“We just have to play better -- to execute, especially in critical situations,” Dawson said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Coming off the loss, and with Pac-12 South foe Arizona State on tap this Saturday, Dawson is placing an emphasis or doing his best to set an example for the younger members of the team.

“It’s really important for the older guys to demonstrate the leadership and the way that we’re supposed to play,” Dawson said. “We need to make sure that we play physical and tough on Saturday.”

And when it comes to the long-term, Dawson is determined to do everything that he can to keep getting back in the flow of things, and to continue to fine-tune his craft so that he can finish his final season in a Trojans uniform off on the right note.

“I’ve got nine more games,” Dawson said. “I want to keep improving. I’m just taking it one game at a time.”