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USC's Dion Bailey glad to be thinking out of the box

SportsFootballUSC TrojansLane KiffinWashington State CougarsPacific-12 Conference

The view was completely different, but for Dion Bailey the result nearly the same.

Bailey, a two-year starting linebacker for USC, led the Trojans in interceptions in 2012. This season, he switched to safety, moving him farther from the bustle of the line of scrimmage.

Bailey still led the team in tackles and came up with one of USC's four interceptions during the Trojans' 30-13 season-opening victory over Hawaii.

"It was fun to be able to see a lot more and get around on the field," Bailey said. "It was a lot easier not having to go through traffic like you have to in the front seven."

Bailey's move to safety was only one of several position changes spurred by new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's "52" scheme.

Former ends Devon Kennard, Morgan Breslin and Jabari Ruffin now play as hybrid linebackers. Leonard Williams, a freshman All-American last season at tackle, is playing end.

But installing Bailey in what had been regarded as a suspect secondary might prove the most important change for a defense that carried the Trojans against Hawaii — and might have to do so the rest of the season.

On Saturday, USC will be challenged when pass-happy Washington State visits the Coliseum for a Pac-12 Conference opener.

Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday completed 35 of 65 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown in a 31-24 loss at Auburn. Halliday also had three passes intercepted, a fact not lost on Bailey.

"This is a game where our defense as a whole can make a statement," he said.

Pendergast, who also coaches the secondary, described Bailey as "a high football IQ guy" and "a work in progress" at both safety and nickel back.

But Bailey brings experience to his new assignment.

He came to USC from Lakewood High, where he roamed the middle of the field as a safety.

After Bailey was a redshirt in 2010, former defensive assistant Monte Kiffin moved the 6-foot, 200-pound Bailey to linebacker, where he matched up against linemen and tight ends 80 to 100 pounds heavier. Bailey was the co-leader in tackles in 2011 and had a team-best four interceptions last season.

However, playing in "the box" — the area between the defensive linemen and linebackers — took its toll.

"In the box, things are about 10 times faster," he said. "I had to learn how to use my speed to avoid just getting physically abused."

And with NFL aspirations to play safety, Bailey welcomed the return to the secondary.

Asked how the view of a linebacker and safety differs, Bailey broke down a running play.

As a linebacker, on a running play to the left side, a right offensive guard might pull to lead the way for a running back. The linebacker must "get over the top" to track down the ballcarrier.

For Bailey, playing behind defensive linemen such as the 6-5 Williams, that created a challenge.

"I can barely see over Leonard," Bailey said. "When they say 'hut' and everybody stands up a little bit, I can't really see what's going on. The line starts swinging this way, the guard is moving .

"That happens in .001 seconds. It's just a quick flash. You don't really see the number or anything. You just see a flash across your face and you know it's time to get over the top."

At safety, 10 to 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, it's a completely different experience.

"It takes an hour for that lineman to get over," Bailey said, laughing. "Everything in the box seems like it's moving a lot slower."

Bailey said his linebacker experience gives him "a couple advantages that normal safeties don't have," but he is still settling into his role because of physical issues that slowed his transition.

Off-season shoulder surgery forced Bailey to sit out spring practice, and he is working through a hip injury suffered during training camp .

But a few weeks before the opener he said, "I feel like I'm going to be like Superman out there. I'm just going to be everywhere."

Against Hawaii, USC mainly deployed three safeties, with Bailey playing as a nickel back. Bailey watched with excitement as freshman safety Su'a Cravens intercepted a pass for the first time as a Trojan. He was thrilled when linebacker Hayes Pullard intercepted a pass and when safety Josh Shaw returned an interception for a touchdown near the end of the first half.

Then it was Bailey's turn.

In the third quarter, Hawaii had a first down at USC's 25-yard line when Hawaii quarterback Taylor Graham faked a handoff and a reverse before setting up to pass. Bailey dropped into coverage with the tight end in front of him and a receiver behind. When Graham threw deep for the receiver, Bailey leaped for the ball.

"When I jumped, I didn't know if my arms would be long enough," he said. "But I got it."

Cravens roomed with Bailey during training camp and said he was a "big brother" who showed him the way.

With several defensive backs suffering injuries against Hawaii — cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Kevon Seymour were in street clothes at game's end — USC will count even more on Bailey to help less experienced players.

Coach Lane Kiffin said those players must be prepared to step in.

"It's going to happen to us throughout the year," Kiffin said. "We're going to have injuries, and guys have got to be ready to play."

The Trojans' secondary will be prepared for Saturday, Bailey said, after taking "a step in the right direction" against Hawaii.

"We played OK," he said, "but there's definitely much room for improvement."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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