LOS ANGELES – If you’ve turned on a USC game this season, chances are a No. 18 on defense has popped up on your screen more than once.
That safety-turned-linebacker is Dion Bailey. He’s been all over the field and one could make the argument Bailey’s the USC defensive MVP this season. He’s leading the team in interceptions, passes defended and is third on the team in tackles. Normally after he makes a play, he’s telling someone about it – usually the opposition.
Just what is he saying?
“I’m just trying to get into the opponent’s head,” said the 20-year-old Bailey with a smile.
When it comes to trash talking, Bailey ranks at or near the top of the list as one of the Trojans’ best trash talkers on the team. It’s a part of his game that goes back to his days of youth football with the Carson Colts.
“Our Pop Warner coach, Rob Watson, he was always yelling like that, talking mess,” said USC wide receiver Robert Woods, who’s known Bailey since they were four-years-old and was teammate of his in youth leagues. “It just translated over.”
Added Bailey: “That’s how I’ve been raised playing the game.
“Trash talking is a part of the game and it’s one of the parts I take a lot of pride in. It’s a lot of fun and it makes the game a lot (more fun).”
His demeanor on the field allows him to let loose more than his normal subdued, laid-back behavior.
Talking wasn’t his forte growing up. He didn’t speak much and when he did, it was on his own terms. His mother, Kimberly, had to tell him just to say hello.
“Dion would just walk in the house and not say anything to anybody,” she said. “After a while, I realized, that’s just Dion.”
Saying “hello” didn’t fit into his routine. After getting home from school, Bailey would walk in the house and head straight upstairs to his room, close the door, and start working on his homework and not say a word.
“I guess he needed some unwinding time or something,” Kimberly said.
After completing his homework, he’d head back downstairs to the kitchen and then he would say his hello’s.
Bailey was competitive growing up. As a youth, he excelled at football, basketball and baseball on various traveling and all-star teams, coached by Watson, also known as Coach Rob. His competitive nature extended beyond the playing fields and into the classrooms.
His father, Harold, is an engineer. Just like his dad, math always came easy to him. As a fourth grader at Lakewood’s Holmes Elementary School, he scored a 99% on the math portion of a state mandated standardized test. Shocked and in disbelief, school administrators decided they were going to make Bailey retake the test. It would be unannounced with Bailey being pulled out of class on any given day. He received the same score.
His parents were big on education but weren’t in favor of him skipping a grade, but allowed for him to be placed in co-grade classes because of his high marks.
Getting good grades was also a point that was driven home by Coach Rob.
“If you didn’t have your homework done, you weren’t practicing that night,” Coach Rob said.
For Bailey, that’s stayed with him to this day. He graduated from Lakewood High School’s engineering program in 2010 with numerous academic awards and was the only member of the football team to graduate with Honors.
He’s on track to graduate from USC next summer with a degree in policy, planning and development. USC athletic director, Pat Haden, tells him how smart he is on Twitter. The middle of three siblings – older sister Jazmyne, 22, and younger brother Kevin, 12 – Bailey tries to pass along the information he’s learned to Kevin, who wants to follow in his footsteps.
Dion challenges him to not only excel on the football field but to get good grades as well, especially in math.
“I don’t want him to look at me and think everything is just going to come easy,” Bailey said. “I don’t want him to think he can just get by because of my name. I want him to understand that he has to work hard so that he can get things on his own.”
He’s described by family members as very analytical for the way he processes information. That undoubtedly has helped him with his position change. You can argue that Bailey isn’t a linebacker, he just plays one on Saturdays. He was recruited as a safety coming out of Lakewood High School and his NFL future will have to include a return to the defensive backfield. The position change wasn’t immediately welcomed by Bailey knowing that he would be giving up a lot of pounds wrestling opposing tight ends and offensive linemen, but he soon embraced the challenge.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin called for the position change due to the evolution of college football and its love affair with spread offenses. It allows a player like Bailey, with natural cover abilities, to remain on the field in base packages as well as Nickel.
“I think Dion has been the lead for this changing of the defensive philosophy,” Kiffin said. “Obviously he’s undersized for the position that he plays but he makes so many plays that it’s a lot more important than having a guy who’s bigger.”
The USC defense will face their stiffest challenge of the season on Saturday at Arizona and Bailey is expected to be in the mix as the Trojans try to slow down the Wildcats. When Bailey makes a play, Arizona will hear about it. He was trained to be a menace on the football field.
“I taught them to get pumped up before the game,” said Coach Rob, who coached Bailey from age three until high school. “He’s a very quiet person off the field, but when he touches the grass it’s time to go to work and he knows that.“
Coach Rob nicknamed him “The Boogeyman” during his days in Pop Warner.
“I said ‘appear to them in their dreams,’” Coach Rob recalled. “’When they look under the bed they’re going to see you Dion.’“’They’re going to see you when they look underneath that bed.’”
So far, opponents have seen him under the bed, in the closet, and on top of the dresser. He’s been a nightmare for the opposition.
Undersized and out of position, he did enough as a redshirt freshman that he entered this season as an All-American candidate and on the Watch List for the Butkus, Lombardi, Nagurski, and Bednarik Awards. It was an exciting time for Kimberly. However, Bailey told her it didn’t mean much and he still had to go out and produce.
It stemmed from a lesson she taught him during his freshman year in high school. She encouraged the coaches to bench him for a game. Kimberly thought it was needed. All of the success Bailey was having on the field caused him to get a “big head.” He learned a valuable lesson being forced to watch from the sidelines.
“It just showed me anybody can be replaced,” Bailey said. “That’s something I learned (at USC also). It don’t matter how many plays you make, you’re at a school (where) everybody’s got talent, everybody’s four or five stars, everybody will step up and do what you can do, so you just got to take full advantage of your opportunity and not look ahead or take it for granted.”
Humble. Laid back. Subdued. Bailey waits patiently every Friday for a text from him mom. It’s a tradition that started when Bailey began his career at USC. The text is a prayer for him and his teammates. He said it helps him lift his spirits and know he has the support off all of those around him when he hits the field on Saturdays.
Once he steps on the field he lets loose. Like Coach Rob and his father told him growing up, it’s time to go to work. And he’s going to talk his way through it.
“That’s really just excitement coming out of him when he’s playing, that’s just how competitive he is,” Harold said. “I think it’s great. That drives him. When he’s doing that, he’s in that element. He’s in that mindset to play football.”