USC running back Dillon Baxter breaks into the clear against Virginia last… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Every time USC running back Dillon Baxter sees a would-be tackler out of the corner of his eye, instinct kicks in.
"I want to cut back so bad," he said Saturday.
The sophomore tailback, however, is attempting this spring to move straight ahead — on and off the field.
Baxter's freshman season was, in his words, "a mess."
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Part of the problem was a spectacular run he made last spring against a defense that would later prove to be subpar in tackling. A video of the run, posted online by USC, quickly went viral, raising already heightened expectations.
Five months later, Coach Lane Kiffin suspended Baxter for the opener against Hawaii for violating team rules. In November, Baxter was suspended for a game against Oregon State after accepting a golf-cart ride on campus from a student who, unbeknown to Baxter, was also an agent.
Baxter finished the season with only 59 carries for 252 yards and a touchdown.
"It's the past but I learned a lot from last year and became a bigger man," he said.
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Now he's trying to become a more disciplined runner.
He found out last season that the frequent cutbacks that worked at San Diego Mission Bay High did not routinely translate to college.
"I kind of came in my freshman year and was just kind of reliving my senior year in high school," he said.
Kiffin said the coaching staff is giving Baxter more work this spring in hopes that it forces him to incorporate and improve on "the small things" of being a tailback.
"He's not a long-speed guy," Kiffin said. "He's not going to hit a lot of home runs because of that. But that doesn't mean he's got to cut back all the time and try to make every play really big."
Baxter is running better and also doing a better job off the field, according to Kiffin.
"He's not the first guy to come in and make mistakes as a freshman," Kiffin said.
Asked whether he was avoiding golf carts, Baxter quipped, "At least ones with agents in them."
Defensive lineman Armond Armstead did some running for the first time since he was hospitalized last month after feeling ill and experiencing chest pain.
He said doctors had cleared him for weightlifting and non-contact activities but were awaiting the results of further tests.
"They checked my chest and said everything's fine," Armstead said. "But they still want to hold me out until they figure out everything that's going on within my body."
With veteran linebackers Chris Galippo, Devon Kennard and Shane Horton sidelined because of injuries, redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard is taking advantage of opportunity.
The former Crenshaw High star intercepted a Matt Barkley pass and showed impressive speed on the return.
"The older guys are teaching us even though they're sometimes not there," Pullard said. "They're giving us confidence and teaching us the ropes."
Cornerback Tony Burnett was limited to an hour of practice because he also participated in a track meet on campus that included USC, Brigham Young and Cal State Northridge. Burnett won the triple jump with a personal-best leap of 49 feet 9 inches. … Quarterback Jesse Scroggins had his best day of the spring, Kiffin said, making good throws and commanding play calls. … Former Trojans safety Taylor Mays of the San Francisco 49ers attended practice.