Offseason storylines: Inside linebacker

It was a big spring for the USC inside linebackers on a number of levels. Lining up out of a new defensive set with a dramatic change in philosophy, not to mention a new position coach in Mike Ekeler, they emerged as one of the standout groups of the spring. And so, with an eye toward next season, here’s a look at some of the major storylines of the offseason for USC’s inside linebacker corps.

New-look defense, new level of play

With the recently hired Clancy Pendergast installing a brand-new 5-2 defensive look, there was a ton of anticipation heading into the spring, as everyone wondered just how the inside linebackers would adjust to their new roles. All of the concerns were quickly erased as players such as Hayes Pullard, Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao made a lightning-quick transition and shined right from day one.

In fact, with a mindset focused on attacking the line of scrimmage at all times, Pullard and Co. made more big-play stops and tackles for loss than they ever did out of the old 4-3 set, giving the defense a physical and active presence that it will desperately need in the fall. Throw in what has been the very positive influence of Ekeler, and there’s reason to believe that this unit’s production will go up dramatically in 2013.

Leader of the pack

No defensive performer made a bigger statement this spring than the veteran manning the starting MIKE linebacker spot -- Pullard. Coming off a 2012 campaign that saw him finish second on the team with 107 tackles, the redshirt junior out of Los Angeles Crenshaw simply took his game to another level. Showcasing unique football instincts and an aggresive brand of play, he’s a natural fit in Pendergast’s defense. With the way that he produced on the field this spring for the Trojans, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him garner consideration for some major postseason honors in 2013. Just as important, he emerged as an unquestioned team leader, speaking up when he had to while also setting an example with his work ethic.

Battle still raging at WILL

It didn’t necessarily receive a lot of attention going into spring ball, but when it was all said and done, the competition between Dawson and Sarao at the WILL linebacker spot ultimately stood out as one of the overriding highlights. In somewhat of a surprise move, it was Sarao who was lining up with the first unit at the outset of the practices ahead of Dawson -- a starter in the middle since his freshman season.

To Dawson’s credit, however, he more than answered the challenge, performing at a higher level than he ever has before -- continually drawing the praise of USC head coach Lane Kiffin. But Sarao didn’t back down either, looking more than at home in his role as a starter. In the end, however, it was Dawson who took his place with the first-team defense in the spring game. A sign that this competition isn’t over was that both players were listed atop the post-spring depth chart with the signature “OR” label placed between their names. With Dawson and Sarao acknowledging that they’ll continue to push each other throughout the spring, the one thing that is certain is that the Trojans are sure to have an extremely capable starter at the WILL spot this fall. And while both players will likely see the field in at least some capacity, there are only so many snaps to go around, and it’s going to be interesting to see just how this one shakes out.

Searching for depth

While Pullard, Dawson and Sarao have all proven themselves to a certain extent, the fact remains that there simply isn’t much depth at the two inside linebacker positions beyond those three performers. The MIKE spot is particularly thin, with walk-ons Will Andrew and Julian Coleman currently serving as backups. Therefore, the arrival of Class of 2013 signee Michael Hutchings this summer is sure to be welcomed with open arms by Pendergast and Ekeler. At 6-foot-1 and a rock-solid 213 pounds, the Concord (Calif.) De La Salle standout is known for his athleticism and playmaking ability, and there’s little doubt that he’ll make a major push for the role as Pullard’s primary backup in fall camp. Scott Starr is another name to watch at WILL -- assuming he’ll return in time after undergoing neck surgery this past season. Tough and rangy, the redshirt freshman out of Norco, Calif., has the tools to develop into a key contributor down the line.