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USC freshman Dillon Baxter has a lot to learn, but he's ready to get started

Baxter, a running back billed as one of the nation's top recruits, was suspended and stayed home for the Trojans' season opener at Hawaii. Saturday night at the Coliseum, he'll debut against Virginia, the first step in what he and Coach Lane Kiffin expect to be a stellar career.

September 07, 2010|By Gary Klein

USC tailback Dillon Baxter won't be calm when he enters Saturday's game against Virginia.

Unlike teammates who got their first-game jitters out of the way at Hawaii, Baxter was home serving a suspension for violating team rules.

So the freshman from San Diego will make his debut before an expectant and curious crowd at the Coliseum.

"That first play in the [Coliseum], I think I'll be a little nervous," Baxter said Tuesday after practice. "But after that first hit, I'll be good."

Based on Coach Lane Kiffin's comments throughout spring practice and training camp, the 6-foot, 195-pound Baxter has the potential to be the Trojans' best player.

Especially if he has learned from some early mistakes off the field.

Kiffin has said that he disciplined Baxter for an accumulation of unspecified incidents that had occurred since Baxter arrived in January.

The suspension was announced in August, a day after USC's Department of Public Safety filed an incident report about an unnamed student "violating team curfew" and "being under the influence of a controlled substance" at the campus dormitory where Trojans players were housed during the first two weeks of training camp. The student was cited to USC's Office of Judicial Affairs.

A source with knowledge of the situation said the unnamed student was Baxter. The source, who requested anonymity for lack of authorization to speak publicly about the matter, said officers smelled marijuana in the dormitory.

Baxter said later that he had learned his lesson — "Just be responsible, do what you need to do and stop acting like a knucklehead and everything should be fine," he said — but the reality of his mistakes sank in last week when he was forced to work with the scout team. It was magnified Thursday when the Trojans opened their season without him.

Though USC won the game, 49-36, Baxter said watching it was one of his worst football experiences, ranking with the time his mother took away his trophies when he was 7 for doing poorly on a science test.

"That's pretty much the worst feeling I've had in football so far, not being able to be out there with my team and work for this undefeated season," he said.

Still, he stayed tuned.

"I wanted to go out and party a little bit but, you know, I've been getting in trouble and what-not, so I stayed in and watched it at home, be mad, sit in my little corner," he said. "But that pumped me up and got me pretty hyped for this week."

Kiffin has eagerly awaited utilizing Baxter, who starred at quarterback, running back and receiver at San Diego Mission Bay High.

Baxter won several 2009 national player-of-the-year honors after passing for 26 touchdowns with only seven interceptions and rushing for 50 touchdowns while leading Mission Bay to the San Diego Section Division IV title.

He is expected to challenge for touches, but it could be difficult to wrest carries from Marc Tyler. The junior started for the first time against Hawaii and rushed for 154 yards in 17 carries, including a 44-yard touchdown.

On the field after the game, though, Tyler acknowledged Baxter's return.

"I know that Dillon is coming back and Dillon is going to help us a lot, definitely, but I'm just going to keep working hard and hopefully I can still get a lot of carries," Tyler said.

Kiffin said during a Tuesday morning teleconference that with Baxter returning, Tyler would need to continue playing well to keep his job. He added that Baxter would have "a great chance" in practice to prove that he deserved to get the ball against Virginia.

Later, after the Trojans' workout, Kiffin stated that the big test for Baxter would be taking hits, especially after a training camp and practices devoid of tackling.

"Most importantly, take care of the ball," Kiffin said. "And then we'll see what he can do from there."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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