Steele Is Quick to Show His Mettle for Trojans : College football: Transfer arrives late to camp but makes presence felt early as starting linebacker in opener at Hawaii.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nickname comes almost too easily, and it has been only one game, after all.

But the way he played against Hawaii, USC's newest linebacker looks like the Trojans' Man of Steele.

Markus Steele didn't even put on pads until 12 days before the Trojans' first game after his late arrival in training camp because of paperwork involving his transfer from Long Beach City College.

Less than two weeks later, he not only started for USC at weakside linebacker, he had one of USC's seven sacks, scored a touchdown on a 46-yard fumble return and nearly made two interceptions.

Maybe we better make that Man of Steal.

"He's a football player," USC linebacker coach Shawn Slocum said, employing the simple phrase coaches use as highest praise.

"He has great instincts, and making the transition to this level has come fairly quickly for him.

"We're very pleased with the way he's been able to pick things up. It looks like he's going to be a heck of a player."

Steele, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior, is not the replacement for Chris Claiborne, the Butkus Award winner who left for the NFL after his junior season.

That would be Zeke Moreno, the steady leader and signal-caller at middle linebacker.

But Steele--who wears the No. 55 Claiborne and Junior Seau wore before him--might be the new big-play man to complement two-time sack leader Sultan Abdul-Malik at the other outside linebacker position.

"We're a little further along defensively than I thought we were going to be, and part of it is Markus Steele," USC Coach Paul Hackett said.

Larry Reisbig, the coach at Long Beach City College, stayed up late Saturday night to watch Steele and another former player, defensive back DeShaun Hill, play against Hawaii.

Nothing he saw surprised him.

"No," Reisbig said. "From the time we started playing him two years ago, he just started making things happen. Natural instincts. He's very quick to the ball."

Quick to the end zone too, from the looks of it.

When Steele recovered quarterback Dan Robinson's fumble Saturday and raced 46 yards to score, that was the tailback chasing him. He didn't catch Steele.

"It was the tailback. I looked at it on film," said Steele, who was a two-way player at Chanel High in Bedford, Ohio.

You guessed it: linebacker and running back. He even carried the ball four times in junior college, averaging almost 10 yards a carry.

"He can really run," Reisbig said.

Steele scored a touchdown in his first game last season too, on a long interception return against Riverside, and scored another later in the season on a fumble return.

He had a shot at scoring two against Hawaii.

"I saw him get the fumble, but before the fumble, they threw on a pattern almost identical to the one he got the interception on against Riverside," Reisbig said. "He was on his way to the end zone, but he dropped it."

Slocum saw it too.

"That tells you a little about his heads-up awareness on the field," Slocum said. "He had several batted-down passes and really could have had two interceptions. He had two in his hands. They were tough catches, but he had a chance at two interceptions.

"He gets a great break on the football. It's understanding the game: understanding formations, the tendency of the opponent, down and distance. Those situations narrow down what he's going to see. Once you see that and understand that, it's easier to react to what you're going to get."

The stats bore that out last season: 93 tackles (71 unassisted), 17 tackles for losses, eight sacks, one interception, one fumble recovery, three forced fumbles, two blocked kicks.

"It's something I do, try to be in the right place at the right time," Steele said. "Try to be somewhere around the ball, because you never know what's going to happen when the other team has the ball. The past two years, I've been lucky enough to be right where the ball bounces."

USC was lucky enough to be where Steele landed.

He set out from Cleveland's East Side to play football in California after a high school career that was limited to 13 games his junior and senior seasons, first because of a broken ankle and later because of poor grades, which also kept him from getting Division I scholarship offers.

After considering Pasadena City College, Steele enrolled at Long Beach City, accompanied to California by train by his parents, Robert, a retired fireman who once played nose guard at Miami of Ohio, and Linda, a hospital worker.

"I wanted to get away from home, and really figure out if I could be on my own and take care of myself," Steele said. "Knowing that in California there are high expectations, I figured if I could go out there and be on my own and take care of business, I could live on my own, and wouldn't have to depend on my parents."

An assistant basketball coach at Steele's high school was familiar with California junior colleges, and Robert Steele called Reisbig to inquire about the Long Beach program.

"We won the national championship in '95, and got a lot of national publicity and got some players that way," Reisbig said, explaining the school's ability to attract players nationally.

But when Steele--whose parents will visit him this weekend for the Trojans' Saturday off--arrived in Long Beach with his family for the first time in August 1997, he didn't know anyone.

"Three days after they left, I got homesick," said Steele, the oldest of three children. "I called and said I was ready to come back home. They told me, 'Just stick with it. We'll see what happens from there.' I stuck with it, and they called me every day, so I felt like I was already at home."

And when the opportunity came to go home to Ohio and play football after two years at Long Beach, Steele wasn't interested.

"Ohio State really wanted him early," Reisbig said.

"Ohio State came after me a little bit," Steele said. "But after my freshman season I already had mostly decided on USC. That's the program I wanted to be with. I already had made my choice. I didn't tell the other coaches. I wanted to see the country. I took a trip to Oregon, took a trip to Arizona State, and took a trip here, and it felt like home here."

Plenty of schools were interested after Steele's 16-tackle, two-sack performance when Long Beach City, ranked No. 1 in the nation, played No. 2 El Camino last season. Steele's mind was made up.

"Coach Hackett and I got along very well, and I thought I'd be in good hands," he said. "Right then and there on my visit, I was ready to sign the papers, but I had to wait till February."

Now USC can't wait to see how good Steele might become.

"Most of all, he has to adjust to the way we do things here at USC--the speed of practices," Slocum said. "I think the biggest thing is that it's so involved. There are so many things we ask the linebackers to do--from a running-game standpoint, a pass-drop standpoint, a pass-rush standpoint. It's quite a bit to learn and do."

Whatever develops, he's off to a striking start.

"You haven't seen the best yet," Reisbig said.

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