The storied USC Trojans defense was a weak spot for the team over the past few seasons, but the team still had three of its top defenders – Dion Bailey, T.J. McDonald, and Nickell Robey – named to the Bednarik Award watch list heading into 2012.
Since 1995, the Chuck Bednarik Award has gone to the nation’s top defensive player; in 2008, Rey Maualuga became the first (and so far, only) USC player to receive the honor.
Dion Bailey, a redshirt sophomore linebacker, is one of just two sophomores named to this year’s preseason watch list. He was the team’s co-leader in tackles in 2011, with 48 solo tackles, two interceptions, and two sacks.
Safety T.J. McDonald made the surprising decision to return for his senior season as the team’s defensive captain. An All-American and All Pac-12 first-teamer in 2011, McDonald had 39 tackles and 3 interceptions last year.
Cornerback Nickell Robey got significant playing time since Game 1 of his true freshman season; now a junior, he has blossomed into one of the defense’s strongest players. He led the team with nine pass breakups last season and had 39 tackles, two sacks, and two interceptions, one for a touchdown. The speedy Robey, like receiver Marqise Lee, also competed with the USC track and field team this offseason; in-season, he uses his fast feet as a punt returner on special teams. He was an All Pac-12 first team selection last year as a sophomore and is expected to have an even better year in 2012.
USC also led the nation with four players named to the Maxwell Award watch list. Center Khaled Holmes, after just one season at center following a solid year at right guard, is a nominee for the Rimington Trophy for the nation’s top center.