No Soft Touch : Cotton, USC Sophomore Linebacker, Played His Strongest Game in Loss to Cal

Times Staff Writer

USC's Marcus Cotton appears to have what it takes, whether he's playing football or basketball.

Cotton, an outside linebacker, who was also an outstanding basketball player at Castlemont High School in Oakland, has a basic outlook on both sports.

"I like basketball because you get to slam dunk on people and I like football because you slam dunk people," he said succinctly.

Right now, Cotton, a 6-4, 215-pound sophomore, is stuffing people. He accounted for 18 tackles, four of them for losses, in the 14-6 loss to California last Saturday at Berkeley.

He is playing a position that belonged to All-American Jack Del Rio for four previous years and there is every indication he's in Del Rio's class as a player.

"There's no reason that he couldn't be every bit as good, possibly better than Del Rio because of his speed." said Donnie Rea, who coaches USC's outside linebackers. "But Del Rio had some intangibles with knowing where the football is. Marcus is behind him in the experience factor, but ahead in speed and quickness. But he's making up ground rapidly.

"I think his last game was an indication of the level of maturity he has reached as a player."

Rea was particularly impressed that Cotton made most of his tackles on plays that went away from him.

Ironically, Cotton's last tackle, an apparent sack of quarterback Kevin Brown, resulted in a game-clinching touchdown for California. Cotton, blitzing from the inside, jarred the ball loose while Brown was trying to hand off to Marc Hicks, who then picked up the loose ball and ran an unmolested 16 yards for a touchdown.

"I looked up and he was holding the ball in the air as he carried it into the end zone," Cotton said. "I can understand him picking up the ball, but there is no excuse for him scoring. I figure if a team can't score on us, they can't beat us. So our defense played pretty well, but not good enough."

Asked to assess the mood of the team since the loss to Cal that virtually knocked USC out of the Rose Bowl race, Cotton said: "What I get from the team is that they can handle a loss, but not to Cal. So I think Washington is really going to pay for that."

That remains to be seen, though. The Huskies have beaten USC in four of their last five games in Seattle.

In evaluating his own season, Cotton said that he began playing to his potential in the Cal game. "The season has been a learning experience," he said. "I've played well some times, not so well other times."

Cotton was a designated pass rusher last year as a freshman on USC's "speed" defensive unit that used six linebackers and one down lineman during a portion of a game.

He made an impact in his 44 minutes of playing time. He recorded 20 tackles, among them six quarterbacks sacks for 49 yards.

Then, when the season ended after the Rose Bowl game, he joined Stan Morrison's basketball team as a reserve forward.

It isn't often that football players play basketball, since the seasons overlap.

Morrison said that football players also develop muscles for explosive contact that hinder them as shooters in making a quick transition from one sport to the other.

"But they make the adjustment quicker on defense because athletes such as Marcus have quick feet," Morrison said. "He's also a very good rebounder, a very gifted athlete."

Rea recruited Cotton after having watched him for only one quarter in a football game.

"I found what kind of athlete he was while watching him play basketball," Rea said. "He wasn't sure at the time which sport he was going to play in college. He came down with some rebounds and stuffed the ball and I thought he'd make a great outside linebacker. He could literally go up over the rim with both hands and also over the shooting square on the glass. There's not a whole lot of people who can do that and play linebacker."

Cotton averaged 18.4 points and 19 rebounds as a senior at Castlemont and was an All-Bay Area selection. He also earned all-city honors as an inside linebacker.

Coach Ted Tollner said at the start of the football season that the outside linebacking position was his greatest concern, since USC had lost two All-Americans, Del Rio and Duane Bickett.

Cotton moved in for Del Rio, and Garrett Breeland, a converted defensive back, replaced Bickett. Greg Coauette was expected to compete for a starting job but he has been inactive since the opening game with a severely sprained ankle that doesn't hold up when he's taking on linemen.

Ron Brown is the only experienced reserve on the outside and Rea said that the unit has played decently considering all factors.

Cotton said he didn't feel any inordinate pressure as Del Rio's replacement.

"The pressure wasn't me taking the place of an All-American. It was just me getting in and playing well," he said. "That was the first thing on my mind."

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