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March 25, 2010

Spring football: Time for linebackers to compete

It's the ultimate good news, bad news, good news, bad news story.

Or position.

It's Linebacker 2009 for the USC Trojans.

There's the good. They're all back. All four players who started a year ago return.

Then there's the bad. They didn't exactly have all that good a season, individually or as a group. And in some games, got absolutely smoked, whether it was their fault or not.

But then there's this. Senior Malcom Smith and junior Chris Galippo, finished 2-3 in tackles on the team last season and are among the foursome of starters returning along with Michael Morgan and late-season move-up and former defensive end, Devon Kennard.

Weakside linebacker Smith had 72 tackles, six for losses, three deflections, one forced fumble and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Middle linebacker Galippo, with 70 tackles, eight for losses, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and six deflections, was right behind him. And Galippo earned sophomore All-American first team honors.

So that's good, right? The last time USC had four starters here, two seasons back, it put every one of them into an NFL starting lineup as a rookie.

"But that might have been the best linebacking group in college ever," defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said.

And maybe last year's bunch might have been as much the victims of unfair and overblown expectations as they were of the power of Stanford's Toby Gerhart or the speed and quickness of Oregon's LaMichael James.

New head coach Lane Kiffin touches on both elements with a look ahead at this key group in the spring.

"Having three returning starters gives us valuable experience in the linebacking corps, but we'll shuffle them around in spring so we can find the best combination,'' Kiffin said of the upside.

But then there's this: "Across the board, this position must improve."

Bingo.

The first sign of that sought-for improvement is moving Kennard into the middle to challenge Galippo for that key spot. The next sign is linebackers coach Joe Barry announcing that every position, despite the return of all three starters, is "up for grabs."

That means that Shane Horton will be challenging Smith for the WILL spot and redshirt freshman Marquis Simmons will be going after Morgan on the strong side.

Another redshirt freshman, Simione Vehikite, moves to linebacker from fullback. Walk-ons will be junior Ross Cumming, who had special teams experience a year ago and redshirt freshman Will Andrew.

Next fall, USC will add a pair of linebackers to this mix: Glen Stanley (Eastern Arizona Junior College) who played at Bowling Green and will be a junior, and Hayes Pullard a highly touted freshman from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles.

Up in the air for what will be a thin position in the spring is the status of jumior Jordan Campbell, who has not been with the team during winter workouts, and Jarvis Jones, working to identify the exact nature of his neck problem and whether it will keep him from playing.

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFOOTBALL.COM. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.









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