One of the highest honors a USC Trojans linebacker can receive is the privilege of wearing jersey No. 55. Players who have worn that number — notably Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne, Keith Rivers — played with a ferocity and command that set high expectations for the 55s to come, but so far, junior linebacker Lamar Dawson hasn’t quite lived up to those standards.
USC’s current No. 55 enters the 2013 season with 102 career tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and one sack in 13 career starts.
He was awarded the number his freshman season by head coach Lane Kiffin, and he moved into the starting middle linebacker spot ahead of veteran Chris Galippo, for the final four games of 2011.
In 2012, Dawson started nine games at middle linebacker and was fourth on the team with 77 tackles. While he drew praise early in the season for beginning to emerge as a leader — No. 55 is supposed to be the anchor of the defense, after all — he hasn’t yet become the unquestioned starter and defensive standout many assumed he would.
Perhaps no one was more critical of Dawson than his former backup, Galippo, who blasted him from his now-defunct Twitter account during the Trojans’ embarrassing loss to UCLA last November:
Galippo knows something about not reaching one’s potential. A highly rated prospect, he struggled with back problems throughout his career and was considered a recruiting “bust” by some. Galippo tweeted his frustration about the USC defense throughout the season, and while some felt he blasted Dawson out of bitterness, he wasn’t the only one to criticize his successor.
During the Sun Bowl, when Dawson made an interception that was one of the team’s only positive plays all day, Pac-12 Network correspondent Bryan Fischer tweeted:
Took 13 games until Lamar Dawson had a play that was representative of wearing the #55 jersey.
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) December 31, 2012
Perhaps Dawson was finally hitting his stride as a top Trojans linebacker in the postseason, and the addition of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast would only help him excel as his career progressed.
Or perhaps not.
Kiffin called Dawson the defensive MVP of spring workouts, noting his improvement and raving that the linebacker had five of his best practices during his USC career this spring.
On the post-spring depth chart, however, Dawson was listed as a co-starter with junior Anthony Sarao, who played frequently on the weak-side in 2012.
Back in April, linebackers coach Mike Ekeler told reporters: “We have three starters for two positions,” and the LA Daily News predicted Dawson could fall to second-string behind Sarao.
LA Times reporter Gary Klein wrote this week that Dawson and Hayes Pullard will fill the two starting linebacker spots in the new “52″ defense, and according to the article, Kiffin thinks Dawson is ready for a breakthrough season.
That’s exactly the kind of year he’ll need to have if he’s ever going to help the USC defense return to respectability and live up to the weighty expectations of wearing No. 55.