LOS ANGELES -- There’s a definite change in the air this spring at USC. What with four new coaches on the staff, in addition to a revamped defensive philosophy, there’s a general feeling emanating throughout the program that everyone has a clean slate.
Not surprisingly, then, March has emerged as a time of opportunity for many players looking for more playing time, and perhaps no one has taken advantage more than inside linebacker Anthony Sarao.
“When opportunity presents itself, you’ve got to take it, and that’s where my mindset is at right now,” said Sarao after the team’s practice on Tuesday. “You’ve got to take it because you only get one chance at this.”
And that’s precisely what Sarao has done.
Accumulating 40 tackles and three sacks in 2012 while playing in a reserve role at linebacker and on special teams, the 6-foot, 215-pound redshirt sophomore has been one of the stars of the spring, lining up alongside Hayes Pullard with the first defensive group through the team’s four practices.
Showing fantastic instincts and a physical brand of play, Sarao has been hard not to notice. But it’s his work ethic and drive that have really set him apart, something that became evident as a freshman on the scout team when he came away with the Defensive Service Team Player of the Year Award.
Not surprisingly, Sarao is intent on maintaining focus on the big picture, despite his recent success.
“I don’t really try to worry about who’s running with the ones or twos because the spring is really just about working on your fundamentals,” said Sarao, who arrived at USC in 2011 after a storied prep career at Absecon (N.J.) Holy Spirit. “I’m out here every day to focus on every single rep and make sure that my technique is perfect.”
With his skill set, Sarao has emerged as a natural fit in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s new, attacking 5-2 defensive scheme. Lining up at the WILL linebacker spot, it’s similar to the position he played last year in the Trojans’ 4-3 alignment, although there are some noticeable differences.
“In the 4-3 at WILL, I was more on the outside on one side of the field mostly, but in this 5-2, you’re always in the middle, so you always get to get in on the play,” Sarao said. “It’s not that hard to adjust to. It’s been working out good. I think it suits my game because it allows me to run in open space and to use my abilities.”
Aiding in his development -- as well as that of the other inside linebackers around him -- is a brand-new position coach, Mike Ekeler. The former Indiana co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach has already made a positive impression on Sarao.
“Coach Ekeler is going to get after it every day,” Sarao said. “You might think he’s too hard on you, but he wants your technique and everything to be perfect, and he’s sincerely trying to get you better every single day. Every day, we’re getting a thousand times better -- from footwork to getting off blocks, working with Coach Ekeler has made us a lot better.”
But it hasn’t just been the new coach who has been lighting a fire under Sarao. Part of a unit that also includes Pullard and Lamar Dawson, each and every member has brought out the best in each other during practice.
“We’re all close, so we have to push each other,” Sarao said. “It’s the only way we’re going to get better. Our coaches can only push us to a certain extent.”
With so much working in his favor, Sarao certainly appears to have a bright future. As for the moment at hand, he’s just glad to have the opportunity to potentially help the Trojans make a return to the program’s winning ways in 2013.
“I’m just thankful,” Sarao said. “You can’t get too complacent. You can’t ever get too happy with how things are going. You’ve got to stay focused and keep working. I’m just looking to get better. That’s all that I’m worried about, to get better so that the team can get better.”