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USC linebacker Dion Bailey gives Trojans a safety net

The former defensive back once balked at Coach Lane Kiffin's plan to switch him to linebacker, but now he has a team-high four interceptions.

October 25, 2012|By Gary Klein, Los Angeles Times

Dion Bailey nodded his head, listening intently as Lane Kiffin delivered his message.

It was a few weeks after Bailey's first season at USC and he was sitting across a desk from the Trojans' coach as he heard why he should move from safety to linebacker.

Bailey smiled, said all the right things. Switch positions? Of course. Whatever's best for the team.

Standing, he shook Kiffin's hand and thanked him as he headed out the door.

He couldn't wait to phone his father.

"I'm not doing this," Bailey told him. "I'm not playing linebacker. I'm leaving."

After intervention by his parents, he decided to stay put.

Bailey, 20, and the Trojans could not be happier.

The 6-foot, 210-pound Bailey is a second-year starter and key playmaker for a defense that has helped the No. 10 Trojans to a 6-1 record going into Saturday's game at Arizona.

The third-year sophomore has intercepted a team-high four passes and has served as a shining example of USC's switch to a smaller, faster linebacker corps.

"He's like a hybrid," said Monte Kiffin, USC's assistant head coach for defense. "Who knew that he would come out as good as he is?"

Lane Kiffin, apparently.

After finishing with an 8-5 record in his first season as Pete Carroll's successor, Kiffin looked at the college football landscape, especially in what would become the Pac-12. Spread offenses with multiple receivers were all the rage.

The Trojans' defense needed to be quicker and faster, even if it meant going smaller. "We needed to change," Kiffin said.

So he started the shift with Bailey, who had shown football talent ever since his father, Harold, bought him an Oakland Raiders uniform at age 6.

"One of the most exciting days of my life," Dion said.

"He just looked like a football player," Harold recalled.

Bailey grew up in Carson, attending preschool and later playing on football and baseball teams with Robert Woods, a neighbor and future USC teammate.

Bailey's mother, Kimberly, had moved to Lakewood, so when it came time for high school, Bailey attended Lakewood High, where he impressed the football coaching staff as a freshman.

However, Bailey also was an enthusiastic skateboarder. The hobby concerned former Lakewood coach Thadd MacNeal, who worried about Bailey's college football future every time he or another coach saw Bailey careening past.

"I sat him down on the couch and said, 'Listen, if you do exactly what I say, you are going to get a [Division I] scholarship,'" said MacNeal, now coaching at Carlsbad High.

Recalled Bailey: "They told me if they ever saw me skating again, I'd never play. That was the last day I ever skated."

After starring at safety for Lakewood, Bailey joined a USC recruiting class that included Woods and others who stuck together after Carroll left for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks in January 2010 and the NCAA handed down severe sanctions five months later.

The tougher part for Bailey came when the season started.

While Woods and other freshmen played in games, Bailey practiced with the scout team and was a redshirt.

After the season finale against UCLA, Bailey told himself that it was his time. To this day, before games, he writes "MY" on tape wrapped around his left wrist and "TIME" on the right.

"Every time I step on the field," he said, " it's my time to shine."

Bailey had been prepared to shine at safety. Then came the summons from Kiffin, followed by the need for counsel as the then-195-pound Bailey considered the prospect of taking on tight ends and offensive linemen who outweighed him by 100 pounds or more.

His parents preached patience.

"I told him, 'Think about it — it makes you more valuable; you have to be a team player,'" his mother said.

His father advised him to trust in the Kiffins and their coaching experience, to try making the adjustment in spring practice.

"It was tough for him," linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "He really wanted to play safety. He wanted to be like all the USC greats."

Bailey learned the linebacker spot and worked at building size and strength. He found that many of the skills he utilized at safety translated to plays closer to the line of scrimmage.

But he was not sold on the switch until the first scrimmage of fall practice last season, when he intercepted passes on consecutive snaps and returned the second for a touchdown.

"That's when I truly found peace with the position," he said.

Bailey intercepted two more passes during the season and shared the team lead in tackles with Pullard.

This season, he has already doubled his interception total from a year ago and is among the leading tacklers for a defense expected to face its stiffest test against an Arizona offense that ranks fifth nationally.

Bailey is confident that the skills he has learned at linebacker will help him when he reaches the NFL, where he expects to return to the secondary.

"I'm thankful they made the move," he said. "It was a very wise decision.

"It took me awhile, but now I understand and appreciate it."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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