Pullard standing tall as defensive leader

There’s a marked change in the way that USC linebacker Hayes Pullard carries himself on Cromwell Field during workouts this offseason that is hard not to notice. The redshirt junior is standing just a tad bit taller, his voice is booming a little louder, and he’s taken on more accountability in terms of coaching up the players around him.

In short, Pullard has emerged as an unquestioned leader of the defense. It’s an all too fitting responsibility for a tried and tested performer with 25 starts and 188 career tackles under his belt. And with USC head coach Lane Kiffin and Co. desperate to fill the void created by the loss of two outspoken veterans in safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey to the NFL, it couldn’t have happened at a more crucial time.

“When I first came here, I was just trying to follow in their footsteps -- learning how to run a team from what they did,” Pullard said of the duo. “When they left, I just looked to my left, and I looked to my right and it was just me -- I realized that I had to take that role right then and there, and that I had to become that vocal leader.”

But the last four months haven’t come without their challenges. With USC coming off a disappointing 7-6 campaign that saw the Trojans struggle at times against the up-tempo, spread offenses, new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was brought in and immediately installed a 5-2 defensive look differing dramatically, both in regard to alignment and philosophy, from the team’s previous 4-3 set. And after some initial growing pains, the defense eventually came together to play at an extremely high level this spring, and it appears to have kept the momentum going this offseason, with Pullard looking primed for a huge season at his new MIKE linebacker position after spending his previous seasons at weakside linebacker.

“In the spring, at first, it was kind of like, ‘How do we do this?’” said Pullard, who currently stands 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds. “Then, we got it a little bit, and now we’re just trying to take the next step out here during 7-on-7, and we’re still getting better. There’s a lot more talking going on, and we have that sense of brotherhood back on defense where we want to fight for each other. It’s a bond that I really like.”

Playing fast to the ball and physical, it was the inside linebackers -- led by new assistant coach Mike Ekeler -- that emerged as one of the star units of the spring. A collection that also includes two talented athletes battling it out at the WILL position in Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao, in addition to highly touted freshman Michael Hutchings as a backup at MIKE, it’s a group that is sure to play a key role in Pendergast’s attacking defensive scheme.

“We’re coming along good,” Pullard said. “Coach Ekeler and Coach Pendergast, they put us in places where we’ve never been before, and that’s going to help us the more we practice and work on it. We’re going to be fast and aggressive. We’re going to be a lot better than last year.”

With only Pullard, Dawson and Sarao possessing significant game experience on the inside, it’s the development of Hutchings -- an ESPN 150 prospect out of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle -- this offseason that will be watched with particular interest. To no surprise, Pullard has already taken the eager youngster under his wings, and he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far.

“He’s all ears,” said Pullard, a Los Angeles Crenshaw product. “We need him right now, this season. So, I’ve been teaching him the playbook and how to run everything out here. I know that transition from high school to college is a big deal, but I’ve already seen a lot of improvement from him, and he’s going to get a lot better in the coming weeks.”

In Pullard, Hutchings has what could be considered to be the perfect mentor, but as for Pullard himself, he isn’t even close to being satisfied with where he’s at just yet.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Pullard said. “I just want to be a peak performer in every part of my game. I just want to get faster and stronger. You know, film wise, changing direction…every little thing counts. I feel like the big things are given to me by God, the little things, I have to work on.”

With his mindset focused on the task at hand, there’s no telling just how far Pullard will continue to take his game in the coming months. And now, with his defensive teammates following his lead on a daily basis, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to the group’s production in 2013.