LOS ANGELES — Dion Bailey is comfortable. In his eyes, he’s back where he belongs.
Bailey spent his first two seasons on the field at USC in the box, shedding blocks, chasing down ball carriers and occasionally guarding wide receivers and tight ends down the field in the slot as an outside linebacker.
It was a surprising move, but he made the most of it, earning Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors in 2011. He had a team-high 81 tackles in 2011. Last season, he led the team with four interceptions, which was tied for second most in the country by a linebacker.
In 2013, he’s back where he feel he belongs — in the defensive backfield.
The transition, albeit brief, has been seamless during USC’s first week of fall camp.
Bailey lined up with the first-team defense when camp opened last Saturday, and despite not playing a down there in college, he’s been named to numerous preseason all-conference teams as a safety.
Bailey was a national recruit as a safety coming out of Lakewood High School in 2010, but was moved to linebacker in Monte Kiffin’s defense partly so that the Trojans could have more speed on the defensive side of the ball.
In new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 scheme, Bailey is back relying on skills that made him a prized recruit.
“I’m just falling back on the natural feeling of the position that I used to excel in high school, and it’s definitely been helping me early on in camp,” Bailey said.
His new position group is one of the deepest on the team. Pendergast has spent the first couple of days of camp rotating players in order to find the right groupings.
“We’ve got some safeties that have coverage ability,” Pendergast said. “They’ll be some packages where we’ll play three safeties and there will be some packages where we’ll play three corners. Some of the guys we got will give us some flexibility based on the style of offense we’re going to play.”
Bailey’s flexibility is what allowed him to excel at linebacker. At safety he feels he can still have that flexibility and make an impact, especially when it comes to being physical.
“I can come down in the box and I feel like I’m right at home,” Bailey said. “It’s not like a normal safety dropping down and he feels like ‘Oh I’m not supposed to be in the box.’ Getting physical, fighting off blocks, all that stuff that I learned over the past three years at linebacker definitely will help me in the secondary.”
An added bonus for him now is having the chance to see the whole field. The game now moves “slower” for him, being able to decipher offenses from 12-15 yards away from the line of scrimmage compared to the chaos linebacker presents being closer to the line of scrimmage.
Safety gives Bailey lots of open space, which makes him feel at home. Linebacker didn’t.
“That was never a position I felt that I would play at the next level,” Bailey said. “I mean, I was 200 pounds. I don’t think I could survive at that position much longer.”