When you watch the USC defense on the field in spring ball there is no doubt as to who is running the show.
During every huddle and before every play, sophomore middle linebacker Lamar Dawson is the one right in the center of the action. As the players say, he’s the one driving the bus.
The middle linebacker is responsible for getting the defense together and calling the play from the sideline, then making all the checks based on the offensive formation. It's a critical responsibility, one that has been handed to Dawson at a very early point in his career.
Dawson -- as a true freshman -- was named the starter with four games left in the 2011 season and took over the job from experienced senior Chris Galippo. It was a risky move by the coaches to put such an inexperienced player in that position, but you can't argue with the results, as the Trojans went 4-0 to finish the year.
With that game experience under his belt, Dawson is no longer playing like a freshman. He has the look this spring of someone who has confidence in what he’s doing on the field.
"I know the system," Dawson said. "I know the plays. I'm not thinking as much. That allows you to read plays faster, to react and get to the football. Last year was invaluable in terms of getting me used to the speed of the game and the crowd, the atmosphere."
Now that he got his feet wet with some playing time, Dawson is focused on becoming the kind of true leader that the defense needs from the middle linebacker spot.
Trojans senior defensive end Devon Kennard knows all about the responsibilities that come with playing middle linebacker. Kennard came to USC as a defensive end but was moved to outside linebacker as a freshman in 2009 and then to middle linebacker as a sophomore in 2010. It was an adjustment that never quite fit, and Kennard was moved back to the D-line for his junior year.
"You can tell Lamar is much more in control this year," Kennard said. "He's giving the calls, making the adjustments and telling us what to do. That's what you need playing the position. It's something I had to learn as well. He's really blossoming, and I see him making a lot of plays out there."
Dawson's coaches are taking notice as well.
"Lamar has taken the next step, and that's normal for going into your second season," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "He's still getting comfortable at the position in our defense, so he gets better and better."
One area of the leadership role that doesn't come naturally is the need to be vocal. Dawson is soft-spoken off the field, but that won't work on the field, not when there are 80,000 people in the stands and you need to clearly communicate the signals to your teammates in a short amount of time.
"He didn’t talk a lot last year, but he's definitely improved dramatically this spring," linebacker Dion Bailey said. "We need the middle linebacker to be a vocal guy, and he's a lot more vocal out there."
Even Dawson admits it's an area he's trying to improve on.
"I'm trying to be more vocal," Dawson said. "I'm talking louder so everyone can hear me and get lined up right."
If there was a need to improve upon his vocal skills, there aren't any such worries about his physical skills. Dawson is a solid 6-foot-2, 235 pounds and can move. His combination of athleticism and strength helps to balance a linebacker group that relies on speed from the undersized outside linebackers. It adds up to a position group that should be one of the best in the conference this year while featuring three sophomore starters.
"As linebackers, we want to be the leaders of the defense," Dawson said. "We want to be vocal. We want to be in on every tackle. We want to set the tone emotionally and mentally."
Sounds like a man ready to lead the way.