LAGUNA HILLS, Calif. — Former USC standout Dion Bailey remembers feeling “frustrated” when he first learned he would move to outside linebacker from his natural position at safety. Looking back on his redshirt freshman season three years later, he admits it was a blessing in disguise.
“It boosted my football IQ,” Bailey said emphatically in an interview with FOXSports.com. “I’m grateful for it, but I wasn’t really happy about it in the beginning when I got moved there. Now that I look back at it, it really helped me a lot and it gave me the opportunity to show my versatility.”
When asked where he’d prefer to play at the next level, the 21-year-old notes that he’s “willing to play whatever” the team who picks him wants, but he has ideas on how he can be most effective.
“I feel like I can play safety or nickel at the next level,” Bailey said. “Maybe a little rover. Kind of like what Troy Polamalu does. That would be a perfect fit for me in my eyes.”
Bailey, who grew up in Lawndale, Calif., understood from an early age what it took to get to the NFL. By the time Bailey was six years old, he was popping pads and making a name for himself on the football field. A decade and a half later, the six-foot, 200-pound safety is knocking on the NFL’s door.
“It’s not a surprise to anyone in my family that I’m in this situation,” said Bailey, who is training rigorously for the NFL Scouting Combine. “This is what we’ve all been waiting on my whole life.”
While Bailey fielded offers from Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Oregon coming out of high school, he decided to stay close to home. Over the course of the next three and a half years Bailey watched his football program deal with postseason bowl-ban sanctions, reduced scholarships and witnessed Pete Carroll — the coach who recruited him leave for the NFL. Then in 2013, Lane Kiffin was fired after the Trojans lost 62-41 to Arizona State, leading them to a 3-2 start.
“I feel like we had [more] things happen to us as a team than any another school has had to deal with in over 10 years,” Bailey said. “I never had the same [position] coach for back to back years. I had a different coach every single year. Then we had the whole head coaching change.
“It was really a growing up experience. It helped us grow up as men, not just players. It helped me understand that it’s a business and there’s levels to the business. People at the top are going to make decisions that we at the bottom can’t control. We just have to worry about what we’re asked to do.”
That mature mindset has allowed him to have a realistic perspective in the NFL. In fact, you could argue the adversity USC had to deal with the past few seasons has this class more seasoned and ready than the ones from the Carroll era.
“It really showed us that it’s not all fun and games,” Bailey said. “If you’re not producing then they’re going to have to move on.
“It pretty much gave us a glimpse of how the next level will be. When guys come out of SC and go to the next level especially through my era, you’re not really surprised how stuff is ran because that’s how it was in college. It’s an easier transition going from SC to the NFL than I would assume any other program in the country.”
Bailey, who is exiting USC as a redshirt junior, had his mind made up at the Las Vegas Bowl that he was making the leap into the NFL. While he graduates with a degree in Policy, Planning and Development in May, Bailey is most excited to quiet the skeptics, who have questioned his ability to keep up with the speed of the game in the NFL.
Most of his offseason training has been prioritized on perfecting the 40-yard dash. Working with Ryan Capretta of Proactive Sports Performance, Bailey has fine-tuned his technique including his form, hand positioning, angling his back the proper way and controlling his breathing.
“I’m like two-tenths of a second faster than I’ve ever ran in my 10,” Bailey said with a grin. “I ran a 4.53 at SC, so I’m excited to get out there and showcase it front of the country.
“I really love being in front of bright lights,” Bailey said. “I’ve always been a guy when the lights are bright, I shine brighter. I want to show that I have a place at the next level and that I can make a mark at the top of the charts so I can be a happy man come May 8.”