When USC men's volleyball Coach Jim McLaughlin shuffled his team's starting lineup last fall, he didn't exactly have freshman Jason Perkins in mind.
Neither did Perkins. A walk-on from Corona del Mar High School, Perkins had planned to spend some time on the Trojans' bench.
He wasn't there for long, however.
Before the season, McLaughlin moved Bryan Ivie, a 6-foot-7 junior, from middle blocker to the back line, opposite the setter.
That left McLaughlin, in his first year as coach, with a problem.
Where was he going to find a middle blocker to replace Ivie, a member of the U.S. National team last summer?
He need look no further than his bench, where Perkins was eager for a chance to prove himself.
"I liked what Jason did," McLaughlin said. "He's a quick hitter and a good blocker.
"We wanted to design an offense around the guys we had and their abilities. With Bryan playing opposite the setter, we figure we could be more efficient."
USC's game plan has been more than efficient this season. And Perkins will be in the starting lineup when the top-ranked Trojans (13-1) play Ohio State (6-16) at 7:30 tonight at Edison High School.
"I'm a little surprised to be where I am right now," Perkins said. "But I've been improving ever since my sophomore year in high school. That improvement has helped me get here. I feel I deserve it."
No one is about to argue with Perkins, who, at 6-4 and 210 pounds, looks more like a defensive end than a volleyball player.
In fact, his athletic career at Corona del Mar started on the football field, where he played in the defensive line for three years. He started for the varsity as a junior but quit football his senior season.
"I lost the football attitude, you know, \o7 the kill,\f7 " said Perkins, who also played volleyball for three years in high school. "I wanted to concentrate on volleyball. I knew I had a better chance of playing volleyball in college than football."
At least that's what he believed.
After Perkins led Corona del Mar to the Southern Section 4-A volleyball championship last season, college coaches weren't exactly eager for his services.
Perkins had 25 kills and 11 blocks in the final against Mira Costa and was a first-team All-Southern Section 4-A selection. But as his teammates accepted scholarships to UCLA and San Diego State, Perkins didn't get any.
"I was pretty bummed about it," Perkins said. "But I guess it worked out for the best."
It worked out because former USC Coach Bob Yoder let Perkins walk on. Yoder resigned last summer and was replaced by McLaughlin, who was surprised that Perkins hadn't been offered a scholarship.
"One of the first things I asked him was why he wasn't recruited," McLaughlin said. "I couldn't believe that someone with his ability would be overlooked.
"My first impression was that he had a great attitude. He will run through a wall to get to the ball. The first day of practice I said, 'I would love to have 12 Jason Perkins on my team.' "
Perkins' attitude hasn't always been great. During his high school career, he often would become depressed when he made an error. A missed block or a muffed spike would frustrate him so badly that he made more mistakes.
"He was always physically gifted," Corona del Mar Coach Charlie Brande said. "We had to work on his emotional and mental control. He didn't understand how good he can be. He would get down on himself and mope. He was his own worst enemy."
Perkins said he had difficulty adjusting to volleyball's team concept. He learned to play the game on the beach, playing two-on-two. He played his first indoor game in his sophomore year at Corona del Mar.
By his senior year, Perkins had learned to deal with his mistakes.
"It was like a light bulb came on in his head," Brande said. "He realized he could play with anyone."
Perkins "still looks down at his shoelaces sometimes," McLaughlin said.
"He still gets mad at himself when he makes an error," McLaughlin said. "But as long as they're aggressive errors instead of unforced errors, we can work with him on it."
Perkins' aggressiveness is a reason that he's a candidate for college volleyball's freshman of the year award. Coaches choose the top freshman at the end of the season.
"I'm really going to bat for him with that award," McLaughlin said. "He definitely deserves to win it."
Perkins averages about four kills a game. His hitting percentage (.372) leads the nation's freshmen and ranks 13th overall.
"He hasn't been playing like a freshman," McLaughlin said. "He's filled in at a tough position for us.
"You can always count on Jason to get the job done. A lot of coaches don't want to start freshmen because you have to worry about them all of the time. I don't have to worry about Jason. He just keeps working and working."
Perkins said he has to work hard to keep up with players such as Ivie, who has become his mentor.
"He's been a big influence on me," Perkins said. "My attitude has sort of changed over time. I watch all the others on the team and how they handle things."
Perkins said he hopes to join Ivie on the U.S. National team someday.
"Ever since I was young my master plan was to win the Southern Section and then play in college," he said. "Now it's to win the NCAA (championship). I know this is a long way off, but if I'm invited to play for the national team, I'll be stoked to be there."
Besides Jason Perkins, three other Trojans played high school volleyball in Orange County--starter Nick Becker (Mater Dei) and reserves Chris Knowles (Dana Hills) and Drew Sheward (Newport Harbor). . . . Ohio State has three starters from Orange County--Todd Brooks (Estancia), Paul Esko (Irvine) and John McKeown (Laguna Beach). . . . In high school volleyball, Huntington Beach, ranked No. 1 in the Orange County coaches' poll, plays host to No. 7 Corona del Mar today; No. 6 Laguna Beach will play at unranked Newport Harbor on Thursday and No. 2 Woodbridge will play host to unranked Costa Mesa on Friday.