He's on Right Side of Hits Now : USC: Mike Salmon nearly quit football while a scout-team back. Now he gives as good as he got.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It would figure that USC's Mike Salmon would be winding up his college football career as one of the West's premier defensive players--tackling people, rather than the other way around.

The senior safety was, for an entire season in 1989, on the other side of the ball. Scout team running back, they called him.

In other words, a tackling dummy.

When Salmon came to USC from Greenway High in Phoenix, the Trojans didn't know if he was a split end or a defensive back. But because he was redshirted as a freshman, Larry Smith's staff deferred a decision.

The result was a miserable year for Salmon, one that nearly cost the Trojans an outstanding player.

"It was definitely not an enjoyable year for me," Salmon said.

"I got pounded on, almost every day. Mazio Royster and I switched off as scout team running back.

"Looking back on it, it seems like the first four rounds of the NFL draft were pounding on me. We played Ohio State that year and the coaches had the defense all fired up. So they were all after me, in practice. I was supposed to be imitating Carlos Snow of Ohio State.

"I took shots by Junior Seau, Mark Carrier, Cleveland Colter, Ernest Spears, Scott Ross, Delmar Chesley, Tim Ryan, Dan Owens and Kurt Barber.

"It wasn't fun, and I had a lot of second thoughts about things. College seniors are so much more physically mature than an 18-year-old freshman.

"I thought of transferring. I thought of switching over to baseball. But I stuck it out. After that team went to the Rose Bowl, all those seniors cleared out and I went from a scout-team guy to a starter.

"Now, I'm very happy about being at USC and how my football career has turned out."

Salmon has become a 6-foot-1, 210-pounder who gives as hard as he used to get. And he is the leader of a secondary that ranks fourth in the Pac-10, yielding an average of 104 yards passing.

Salmon turned down an $80,000 offer by the Philadelphia Phillies to accept the USC football scholarship. Salmon's older brother is Tim Salmon of the Angels, who hit 31 home runs and batted .283 as the American League's probable rookie of the year.

"Tim told me to stick it out, that I'd already put in a lot of football time and that baseball would always be there if I needed it," Mike Salmon said.

Salmon, because of conflicts with spring football, had played in only eight baseball games in three USC seasons until last spring.

"Right after John Robinson came in as the head coach, I went in and asked him if I could play baseball in the spring and he said: 'Sure, go ahead.' You could have knocked me over. Larry Smith always wanted me at spring practice."

Salmon batted .280 in 50 at-bats last spring, but will defer a decision on playing again as a senior until January.

"After football, I want to have a talk with Coach Robinson, to find out if he thinks I'll be a high NFL draft pick," Salmon said. "If he thinks I will be, that'll have something to do with any decision I make about playing baseball.

"I learned with my brother not to have any expectations about drafts--in either sport. I sat right there with my brother and heard scouts tell him he'd be a first-round draft choice once--and he went on the third round."

Trojan football defensive coordinator Don Lindsey projects Salmon as a safety in the NFL.

"He may be more important to our defense than (quarterback) Rob Johnson is to our offense," Lindsey said.

"We have an outstanding backup quarterback in Kyle Wachholz, so if we lost Rob it would hurt us, but it wouldn't be a killer. But if we lost Mike, the defense would lose a whole lot."

The Trojans nearly lost a whole lot when kicker Cole Ford suffered an injured back. But Salmon, after a quick tuneup, replaced him and kicked field goals of 36 and 38 yards against Washington State.

"Here's a guy who hadn't kicked since high school, and he couldn't wait to get in there and kick," Robinson said. "If it'd been me, I'd have been scared to death."

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