Heading into the spring, USC outside linebacker Jabari Ruffin knew that he had a golden opportunity, and he was determined to seize it. A third-year sophomore with 22 tackles and one start to his credit, as he saw it, this was his time to emerge from relative obscurity into a key contributor for the Trojans.
After all, not only did he feel that he was physically prepared to take on an increased role, but a brand new 3-4 scheme was set to be unveiled by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, and the SAM linebacker spot that he was slated to play was wide open for the taking.
All he had to do was prove himself on the field.
And through 11 practices this March and April, that’s just what he has done.
Beginning spring camp running with the No. 2 defensive unit behind Quinton Powell, Ruffin began impressing USC coach Steve Sarkisian and Co. with his play on a daily basis, so much so that over the course of the last week he actually has been lining up ahead of Powell with the No. 1 group for much of the time.
“We’re seeing him really grow as the days go,” Sarkisian said. “So, as much as we’re looking at the grand scheme of things right now, there’s individuals like a Jabari who you say, ‘Man, he’s starting to get it a little bit more, and a little bit more.’”
A big, rangy athlete who, in addition to starring at linebacker on the high school level at Downey (Calif.), also excelled as a wide receiver, Ruffin believes he has found the perfect match for his unique skill-set in the SAM linebacker position in USC’s new system.
“Not only do we get to rush off the edge, get a little blitzing going -- which is what I did last year in the old system -- but I get to cover receivers and use my speed in space,” Ruffin said.
“He’s really what you’re looking for at that SAM linebacker position for us,” Sarkisian said. “He’s 6-3 and change, 240 pounds. He was a high school wide receiver that is extremely athletic for a big man, but yet he’s violent at the point of attack.”
Quick to credit USC strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis for the strides he has made physically over the course of the last few months, Ruffin also says he has come a long way in terms of his mental maturity -- another factor that he believes has contributed to his emergence this spring.
“I definitely changed up my work habits,” Ruffin said. “I’m taking everything slow and paying attention to detail, whether it’s studying film, or just a simple false step. So I’m definitely taking kind of a different, mature approach this season, and I feel the effects.”
Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a player like Powell competing with him, either. The talented sophomore has played an important role in helping to raise Ruffin’s game to another level, not just because he too, has shown tremendous promise this spring, but also due to the fact he’s one of Ruffin’s closest friends.
“We definitely push each other,” Ruffin said. “We hang out off the field a lot so when I’m on the field, I see a friend as well as a competitor, so it makes us both strive even more. And we’re out there on each other because at the end of the day I want to see him succeed, and he wants to see me succeed. It’s a good relationship and it’s friendly competition.”
Immersed in that ever-constant atmosphere of competition, Ruffin certainly isn’t having any trouble maintaining focus on his ultimate goal -- making a name for himself in 2014.
“It’s safe to say that this is my big season to break out here at USC,” Ruffin said. “Every day I’m just trying to get better, and obviously looking forward to a big season once fall comes, and the start of the school year, and the start of the season with Fresno State. I’m just real excited about that, and it’s just motivating me every day to work.”